Controversy grips Indian tennis for the second time in the year. This time, the question is related to who the new Davis Cup team captain will be. Under the existing skipper Anand Amritraj, whose contract expires at the end of the year along with the term of coach Zeeshan Ali, the team has improved in their standing – reaching the World Group Playoff stage in each of the three years the pair has been in charge. Yet the AITA has cited disciplinary issues against the 64-year-old, effectively hinting at his exit. The players have spoken up for the captain through a letter sent to the sport’s governing body in the country. And in a candid chat with the Indian Express, Amritraj describes his relationship with the players and his thoughts on the allegations against him. Excerpts
How do you look at All India Tennis Association’s decision to replace you?
This whole thing came as a huge surprise, that they are thinking of a change in the captaincy. In October and November, I didn’t even think this was a possibility. December 1, they had a meeting and suddenly there was talk about changing the captain. I’m still not able to figure out what the reason is. They’re using things like ‘indiscipline’ and all. It’s absolute rubbish. There was no indiscipline in the team. Maybe, they didn’t like my comments on the evening matches against Spain, but I said what I thought would be best for us. And I also thought I had cleared it up with Anil Khanna (AITA chief) and Mr Hironmoy Chatterjee (AITA secretary general) in Delhi. I spoke to both of them. So I don’t believe those are really the reasons. There must be something else. I don’t know what.
Will changing the support team hamper the progress of the team?
That’s the amazing thing. Why would anybody want to make a change when things have gone so well? I can understand if we went and lost to Sri Lanka or Hong Kong. We’re doing well. We’ve dominated the Asia/Oceania group for the past three years. Our Davis Cup ranking is 19th, which is the highest for a long time. And also, the change is only me. It’s not Zeeshan Ali (the coach). Almost all the decisions were made by him and me together. We’ve been hitting along really well. That’s the point I don’t understand, why just me and not him. If you bring a new captain, I don’t think the boys will be very happy. That I know for a fact. From what I’ve heard from the players, out of the last three captains, two of them hardly spoke. If you’ve watched me on the chair with Somdev (Devvarman) or Yuki (Bhambri), I was constantly speaking to them. Somdev I talk to all the time, Yuki I talk to more than anybody else. I talk to him once a week when he’s in the States, October-November. I spoke to him every week. I’m more involved in their careers than only Davis Cup. Believe me, you’re not going to get another captain who can do that, that I can guarantee you. There’s no chance, I don’t want to say any names, they’re not going to be so involved. I can give you that in writing. No chance.
There will be a change of style, management, whatever. I know the boys are not for it. They made it very clear in that letter they sent to the AITA. It’s just a short letter, but it says very forcefully that they don’t want a change in the captain on court.
What about the allegations of indiscipline? It’s said players drink and get their girlfriends to the locker room …
Nobody is below 18. They are all grown-ups. Even the youngest is 19. This is not babysitting, first of all. Secondly, if they are drinking in the rooms after all of us have had a dinner, there is no way I can sort it out. Or if they have something from the minibar, how am I supposed to know? I don’t know, Zeeshan doesn’t know, nobody knows. I can’t be watching them 24 hours a day. I know they didn’t drink in front of me at the dinner that we had in Chandigarh. I know because they were all sitting in a circle in front of me. Nobody had a drink even though the match was already done and we had won 3-0. Nobody had a drink, so that’s a stupid accusation and I don’t know who brought it up. To say that we went out for drinks is all rubbish. We went out for a nice dinner. I really don’t know where all of this got started.
You guys (players) are on the tour 50 weeks a year, and not Davis Cup-related. Do what you want. If you want to have a drink, have a drink. If you want to have your girlfriends around, that is not my problem. When you come for Davis Cup, I expect a certain level of discipline. I have certain rules during Davis Cup: no drinking, and no having wives or girlfriends around till match day. What they do the rest of the year is really not my problem.
However, there are allegations that it is not just the players, even you drinking is getting discussed in AITA circles …
What I said was the players weren’t drinking in front of me. That’s what I said. Seriously, I’m 64 years old, if they tell me that I shouldn’t be drinking, or having an occasional glass of wine, that’s ridiculous. I’m not going to talk for myself. I’m talking about the players and having discipline in the team, and having certain rules. And the rules were ‘no drinking by the players’ and ‘no having girlfriends before Friday’, on the day of the match. That’s my personal opinion. I might have had an occasional beer or something along the way, that’s possible. But, I’m not saying that I don’t drink at all.
I have an occasional drink every now and then. But that’s certainly, and probably, not during the Davis Cup matches either because I don’t want to set an example. If that is possible, I don’t know if it happened. I’m just talking about the boys and the rules that I’ve set for them. I can’t say that I’ve never had a drink in my life. Some people don’t drink at all. That’s fine. If that’s how they want to live, that’s perfectly ok. Most of the guys I know, everybody has an occasional drink, but they are not competitive pro tennis players. They’re all probably past the age of 40 or 50. And at this point, it really doesn’t matter.
How was your equation with the team?
I had enough respect from all the boys. When I said something, they generally listened. Somdev I’ve known since he was 12. He always listens. Yuki I’ve known quite well in the last 3-4 years and he’s a good listener as well. Saketh, I got to know better. And Ramkumar I’ve known since he was a kid. His father Ramanathan used to be one of my hitting partners long years ago. I had no problem telling the team something that I thought they should do during the course of the match. And generally they did it. Somdev was the best listener out of everyone. Nothing against the other guys, they all listened very well. Including Rohan Bopanna and to some extent, Leander. I have no problem with that. I said what I had to say, and they generally listen.
That positive aggression you have, did it help the team?
I wanted them to show a little more emotion during the tournament. A couple of more fist bumps and a few other things just to have positive reinforcement on the court, and not to be completely flat. Because Davis Cup is something you get emotionally involved, and you try to get the crowd emotionally involved. Especially if the match gets close, the crowd can help you quite a bit just like they used to for Vijay and me in the old days. That’s 5000-6000 people shouting for you. That pumps you up. That’s the kind of positive reinforcement I like to bring to the boys. And I think they got the idea.
There’s no question in my mind, that all the matches I’ve been a part of, they’ve played their absolute best. All of them. The only bad match in the last three-and-a-half years was that doubles match against the Czech Republic. That was a horrible match. Other than that, the last three years they’ve played way above their level. Every single one of them. Single and doubles.
How do you look back at your stint?
I had a pretty new team. I had Somdev, Yuki, Rohan and I brought in Saketh Myneni. This year in Chandigarh we beat Korea. Again, it was my pick to play on grass which turned out be a good idea. I tried to also get grass against Spain, but that was unavailable, and we ended up playing in Delhi in the evening. And obviously, we weren’t expected to beat them either. But it turned out to be quite an interesting tie. And we really had no chance of winning. The team has performed as well as they could possibly play. Under my captaincy, they performed as well as they would do in tournaments. And I’ve always said, it’s all because of harmony, camaraderie and chemistry in the team. And everybody gets along. Zeeshan and I make most of the calls.