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Sunday, January 24, 2021

When the Woods were dark and lovely for Vijay Amritraj

Vijay Amritraj recollects the blossoming of his intense rivalry and lifelong friendship with Jimmy Connors which began at Bretton Woods in 1973, where the Indian beat the American to his maiden ATP title.

Written by Shahid Judge | Updated: April 20, 2020 11:58:00 am
By the time Vijay Amritraj reached Bretton Woods in July 1973, he was 19 and a Wimbledon quarterfinalist. (Source: File Photo)

India was supposed to start its four-month countdown to the Olympics this moment. But forced into an unprecedented, grim lockdown as the world battles the Covid-19 outbreak, sport is staring at unfathomable despair. Indian athletes though have given the country reasons to rejoice in the past. The Indian Express looks back at a bunch of these memories in ‘Those Months, Those Minutes’.

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A couple of weeks ago, Vijay Amritraj was on a phone call with Jimmy Connors. The talk involved the usual niceties and a bit of ‘education.’ At the time, Amritraj had been freshly introduced to the realm of Instagram Live, as he joined his son Prakash, a former India no 1 who is a prominent tennis presenter. Connors was intrigued.

“I had done one with Prakash on the cancellation of Wimbledon. So I was telling Jimmy about it. He was so excited and I was trying to educate him about it. We were thinking of getting on a live chat on Instagram together,” Amritraj says, laughing as he describes the call.

There they were, two old friends and familiar foes, both in their 60s, talking on the phone from their homes in Los Angeles during a lockdown, still looking for new ways to keep in touch. This time they ventured on the idea of getting together over a social media channel that specialises in photo sharing.

In many ways, Amritraj, now 66, tries to keep up with the current trends of social media. But at the same time, the man from Chennai, who stands at 6-foot-4 and makes most of his public appearances dressed in a crisp suit and tie, complete with an Indian flag for a lapel pin, still has a taste for the old school. In this day and age where old photographs are converted to a digital ‘post,’ Amritraj keeps some of his more cherished polaroid moments placed on a wall at home.

Two of those images, neatly framed, were captured moments apart. The first is from a prize distribution ceremony, and the second is where he’s being handed over the keys to a new car. Surely, he, who has won 15 singles ATP titles – more than any other Asian player to this day (Kei Nishikori has won 12), more than any other Indian player in the Open Era, would have a wealth of photographs to put up on display. But these two images are from Bretton Woods in 1973, when he won his first-ever tour title, beating Connors in the final. This was where it all started.

*****

By the time Amritraj reached Bretton Woods in July 1973, he was 19 and a Wimbledon quarterfinalist. This was only his second trip to the United States, and the way his first sojourn had panned out, it could only have gotten better.“In 1972, I went to the US for the first time. I was No 1 in India, Anand (his older brother) was No 2, so we were both invited to play by the USTA. We ended up playing 14 tournaments in the US and I lost 13 in first round,” he says.

He had left home with around three-and-a-half pounds in his pocket, and the fact that he struggled to get any wins didn’t help the brothers financially. Instead, they earned money through different means.

“We had no money, I’m talking zero. But Anand was very good at chess. So I’d bet five dollars that my brother would win. I didn’t have the five dollars, but I betted it anyway because I knew Anand wouldn’t lose,” Amritraj recalls, laughing again. “That’s how we kept our dinners afloat, especially in the United Kingdom. We would hardly get places to stay in the UK, so we stayed at bed and breakfasts’ for a pound.”

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Accommodation in the US was easier, as tournament organisers would put players up in houses of people who offer to host them. That gave the youngsters from Chennai their first taste of American culture.

“Here, you’re in the most western of western countries, you’re as far as you can go from home, you’re in the early 70s in the US which was coming out of a bad 60s. There were a lot of issues confronted by America at that time and we were bang smack in the middle of it. The only thing that kept them going was sport. They were just absolutely overwhelmed with anyone who was an athlete,” he says.

“It was a different time. They didn’t know about India, we didn’t know about America. We really got to know the community, the people, their kids. It was a very special education of American way of life in the early 70s. Obviously, a lot of them visited us in India after that. In fact, the very first family we stayed with in Columbus, Ohio, in 1972, the mother came to Stephen’s (Anand’s son) wedding last year. That’s how great friends we became.”

Based on the results, you’d think the two Indians would be flying under the radar. But a certain Pancho Gonzalez, a World No 1 and two-time US Open singles champion in the amateur era, offered to train the duo in at Caesar’s Palace, Las Vegas. Amritraj learned “everything” and got a glimpse of what is required to make it on the professional circuit. When he went back to India a few months later, he played and beat the great Ramanathan Krishnan to win the Nationals for the first time. He calls that title “the second major turning point of his career.”

The first was when, as a 13-year-old, he beat a 19-year-old medical student at a college competition in Chennai.

READ | Abhinav Bindra’s right turn on road to redemption

*****

At Wimbledon 1973, as many as 81 top-ranked players – including defending champion Stan Smith – decided to boycott the Grand Slam in protest of Nikola Pilic’s banning by his home association (Yugoslavia) for allegedly refusing to compete in a Davis Cup tie. By no means, however, was there much expected from Amritraj. Coming into the Championships, the teenager had, according to his ATP profile, lost within the first two rounds of each of the 17 events he had competed in till then.

Vijay Amritraj says he doesn’t get to bring up Bretton Woods 1973 very often with Jimmy Connors. (Special Arrangement)

He defied that run and, regardless of the depleted field, made it to the quarterfinals where he lost to eventual champion Jan Kodes. “I should have won that year,” he offers.

It was a commendable effort nonetheless, as his the elegant serve and volley game took him to heights he had never imagined before. He had made a mark on world tennis. But when he went back to the US, a country where he had never found much success, there were no expectations from him.

What was expected though, was a dress code he had not prepared for. Bretton Woods is a town, around 500 m in altitude, up by the New Hampshire Mountains. The tournament was being held on the clay courts at the Mount Washington Hotel, an exclusive summer getaway where the players were accommodated. What Amritraj was unaware of was that the hotel had an unwritten rule about dinner attire.

“The norm was at the time, that when you came down for dinner in the evenings you needed a coat and tie. It was hot. Two guys from Madras, basically we’d be wearing our normal outfits that we’d be wearing – our slack shirts, some pants and Kolhapuri chappals,” he says.

“People would be looking at us as if we were from a different planet, seated there having food at night. By the time the finals came around, not only were some of them wearing chappals, they all stood up to applaud, in the dining room, after I won the final.”

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The attire, especially the Bleeding Madras shirts that changed colour after every wash, made them the centre of attention off-court, even if they weren’t expected to get too far on it. Not when the likes of young American star Connors and the great Rod Laver were highlighting the field.

Before he got to play Connors in the final, he had to deal with the 11-time singles Grand Slam champion Laver in the quarterfinal. “When you’re playing these kinds of matches in a foreign land, yes, you are nervous because you’re playing a match, yes, you’re nervous because you’re playing your idol. But at the end of the day, the scenario you’re in is, ‘I’ve died and gone to heaven,’” he explains.

“You’re playing, at 19 years old, in this magnificent setting, against a person you’ve only heard of and seen in videos. And you’re playing against this guy in the quarterfinals, in front of 5000 white American people, which they didn’t even think of because they’re all cheering for you. It’s a bizarre scenario. And then you go ahead and win that match, and then the tournament. It’s tough to compare it to anything else.”

Amritraj was the underdog from the start of the tournament, and he won his matches just as any typical underdog would – by saving match points.

In the first round, he was down 5-0, 40-0 in the third set against Humphrey Hose of Venezuela, eventually winning 4-6, 6-4, 7-5. In the quarterfinal Laver was up 6-5 in the second set after winning the first, serving at 40-0. Amritraj won that 6-7, 7-6, 6-4. It was similar in the final as well, but by then, he had become a firm crowd favourite. “There were about 6000 odd people watching the final. Of them, only two were cheering for Connors – his mother and his manager,” Amritraj says.

Connors was up 5-2 in the third set, serving for the title at 40-15. Amritraj came back to win 7-5, 2-6, 7-5. It was a title that had put the youngster in the winner’s circle of the ATP tour. It earned him a cheque of USD 5000, and a brand new Volvo car – memories that are now on display at his home.

Vijay Amritraj won a Volvo car. (Special Arrangement)

In winning that match against Connors, he now had a fierce rival. In time they’d be joined by Bjorn Borg to become the ‘ABC of Tennis’ – Amritraj, Borg, Connors – whom people would flock down to the stands to watch.

******

Very often, even today, Amritraj finds himself on the opposite side of the court to 67-year-old Connors. “We sometimes play just for fun, even if we’re both wearing jeans. We’d start hitting the ball, though it’s fun, he doesn’t want to miss, I don’t want to miss,” Amritraj says. “We tend to catch up now and then. He’s a very good golfer, so we go and play golf together as well.”

During their jaunts, Amritraj doesn’t exactly get to bring up Bretton Woods 1973 very often. “He always reminds me about Wimbledon 1981,” he quips. Connors came back from two sets down to win the quarterfinal tie in five sets in that match.

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But at his home in Los Angeles, Amritraj has a great reminder of that remarkable week in July 1973 up on his wall. It takes him back to a place and time when he was young, with a big smile on the face, at Bretton Woods, sporting Kolhapuri chappals and a Bleeding Madras shirt, “living life to the fullest.”

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