The recipient of Padma Shri and Indian tennis great, Vijay Amritraj, in an exclusive interview with WION's Sports Editor Digvijay Singh Deo, spoke on a variety of things ranging from cancellation of Wimbledon, fate of US Open, postponement of Tokyo Olympics, sporting word post-lockdown, the rivalry between Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, some of the iconic moments in his career, future of tennis in India and much more...
Digvijay Singh Deo: Vijay Amritraj, we have managed to negotiate a 12 and a half-hour time zone difference for this interview. Many thanks for your time.
Vijay Amritraj: Thanks for having me, Digvijay. This a first for me as well. Looking forward to covering a range of issues with you over the course of the interview. I would just like to say that my thoughts go out to all those who have lost their loved ones due to the coronavirus pandemic. Hopefully, we can keep the number of cases down to the minimum in India and overcome this crisis very soon.
DSD: You are on the West Coast of America and that area has been a major COVID -19 hotspot. How difficult has it been for you all over there?
Vijay Amritraj: Yes, it has been very difficult for us over here. In the US, it has spread rapidly over the last couple of months. The epicentre in the country was New York and because of the density of population in that area, it has been very difficult to contain the virus. Most people also use public transport in New York, which has been a major cause for the outbreak. Other parts of the country are not as densely populated and there is less contact between two individuals on an average.
DSD: The question everyone seems to be asking is how did America get this so wrong? One-third of the cases worldwide have been from the US...
Vijay Amritraj: Yes, the US does have to deal with natural disasters on a regular basis. There have been hurricanes and cyclones, but nothing on the scale of the coronavirus. The virus is so dangerous that it is really difficult to prepare for anything like this. The unprecedented nature of the crisis also makes it tough for the American Center for Disease Control or CDC to contain it in an appropriate manner. The last pandemic that caused so many deaths around the world was the Spanish flu back in 1918. We have had disasters since then, but they have been one-off events. We sometimes forget that the influenza virus kills over 36,000 people in the US every year, that is a huge number which gets overlooked, even though there is a vaccine present for influenza. So, I think it is essential to be prepared as a society for certain things that are likely to happen because we don't live in a local economy any more, we live in a truly global world.
DSD: You go back in history and real leadership shines through in times of real crisis. Has this tragedy shown up a lot of leaders around the world?
Vijay Amritraj: It's like that saying we use so often in sport, when the going gets tough, the tough get going. That I feel holds true for every walk of life. The strength and character of individuals or governments are tested during times of strife. The real test for us as a global community is how we will be able to overcome this crisis together while being alone or isolated. Only a few days ago, it was the 75th anniversary of the victory of Britain and its allies in World War II. It takes me back to Winston Churchill's victory speech, which was really poignant and he was able to capture the spirit of the nation. That sort of strong leadership is what we need right now. The way our world leaders conduct themselves during this crisis is what they will be remembered for. I can only hope and pray that our world leaders can step up and rise to the expectations that we have of them.
DSD: Okay, let's move away from politics. Wimbledon has been cancelled for the year but we have the US Open up next. As things stand it may go ahead but could be in your part of the world at Indian Wells that's the current buzz.
Vijay Amritraj: There are a lot of rumours floating around, but nothing obviously has been confirmed. The last information I received was that the US Open organisers were waiting till June 1 to make a decision on the event. At the moment, the National Tennis Centre in New York is still a makeshift hospital with about 500 beds. The situation in New York is still very serious and because of that, I think the state machinery needs the facilities at Flushing Meadows. There are two choices available to the US Open organisers at the moment, the first is to play the tournament without any fans and the second would be to shift the event to Indian Wells on the West coast. But the difficulty in holding a Grand Slam event is that we have players coming in from all parts of the world.
With the travel restrictions at present, it is going to be extremely difficult to co-ordinate the arrangements of all the players. Then there is the question of the frequency of testing. Even without fans, 4,000-5,000 people would be needed to run the event, who would have to practice social distancing. Professional tennis has actually returned, a tournament is being held in Orlando, Florida without any fans, but it is being broadcast on television and the internet. The event features four players among the top 60 players in the world and is being held without any ball-boys. During the match, only the two players and the umpire are on the court. It's the first sporting event that will be shown live in the last two months, so it will be a great test event for other tournaments.
DSD: The thing with sports like tennis and golf is, that players need to travel from all over the world,...Many countries don't even have flights operating yet, so will it be fair to hold tournaments when certain players won't be able to participate because of travel restrictions or quarantine regulations.
Vijay Amritraj: Yes, that is a valid point. The UK has already introduced a two-week quarantine period for international travellers when they enter the country. That is probably going to be the case with other countries as well because they will have to watch their borders. I think travel restrictions are going to be present for the next few months, which makes it all the more difficult to hold a major international event like the US Open.
DSD: The real dilemma perhaps is for the players.some of them really need the money now as the ecosystem of the sport has taken a hit. But then travelling from one country to another will also entail quarantine regulations. It is a complete journey into the unknown at the moment not just for tennis but for all professional sport. The situation is so bad that the Olympics got postponed.
Vijay Amritraj: The Olympics had to be postponed, there was no way the event could have been held in the current crisis. There are still question marks over the 2021 Games as well because no one really knows when the situation will get better. The second most widely played sport in the world after football, is tennis and players travel all over the world on a weekly basis for tournaments. The various European football leagues take place domestically and it is possible to hold matches without the hassles of international travel. The media rights for the football leagues also generate a lot of revenue for the clubs. In tennis events in North America and Europe, there are mainly three sources of income - media and broadcasting rights, sponsorship and hospitality and ticket sales. Now if we telecast live events on the television and the internet, enough income can be brought in through sponsorship to sustain the sport over the next few months. In India, the major source of income for most sports events is sponsorship. Media and broadcasting rights don't amount for a substantial amount of money, except in the case of the IPL and other major cricket events. Ticket sales also contribute very little to the bottom line. So, I think live tennis can happen in India with domestic players taking part.
DSD: How will sport react when all this finally opens up? Till a vaccine is found social distancing will remain the norm,..but in sports like tennis, golf there have to be repeated tests of the professionals because of the close proximity the players share with each other...
Vijay Amritraj: In the case of golf, it is possible to maintain social distancing. The golfer can maintain a certain amount of distance with his or her caddie. Golf courses have opened up in California and it is possible to have staggered tee times for players, that way the golfer can travel through a course on a cart and not come in contact with any other person. So, it is possible to hold tournaments in golf in the current climate. Basketball is a contact sport, but since there are only ten players on the court, each one of them can be tested before a particular game. However, there might be logistical issues in testing. Holding events without fans might end up being the immediate new normal for sporting events. The NBA might even consider getting all the teams in one city in isolation camps so that they are able to play out the season.
DSD: How do you look at the big 3 of men’s tennis bouncing back from this? Roger Federer had surgery and the last we saw him was hitting balls on a wall, Rafael Nadal hasn’t held a racket since Indian Wells and Novak Djokovic got into trouble for hitting the tennis courts in Spain.
Vijay Amritraj: The big 3 are not even chasing history, they are just chasing each other. Roger Federer is now 38, so every 6-month window makes a huge difference to his career. He will certainly be looking to stay ahead of both Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic in that grand slam race. Nadal would have been the favourite for the French Open in May, he would have tied Federer's tally of 20 majors if he had won the tournament. Djokovic is also not far away from these two with 17 majors. If Federer had taken those two match points at Wimbledon last year, he would have built up a considerable lead on the Serb, but now Djokovic is hot on the heels of the Swiss maestro.
The big 3 are not chasing history or money or fame. These three have made history in their own right and they continue to push each other to greater heights. The only question is how long will they be able to continue doing that. As for the chasing pack- Dominic Thiem Daniil Medvedev and Stefanos Tsitsipas- these three are losing a year and that might prove to be a blow to them because they have a long way to go in catching up with the big 3. The non-elite players are losing momentum and will see this as a missed opportunity. The only thing common for all tennis players on both tours is that none of them has touched a tennis racket during the lockdown.
DSD: It’s a remarkable rivalry isn't it Vijay, how the three have pushed each other. Today Federer is just one ahead of Nadal and Djokovic is breathing down both their necks and the younger and hungrier man.
Vijay Amritraj: I have said this before on many occasions, I think that these three players are the best to have ever played the game of tennis. The incredible thing is that all of them are playing at the same time, which very rarely happens. These three have also been ruling the game for a long period of time, which is even more astounding. So if each of them had played in different generations, all three of them could have been considered the 'GOATs'. So we have been blessed to witness these three compete against each other at the highest level in the same era. The quality of tennis on the show by these men has been nothing short of extraordinary. That's what makes the rivalry so special.
DSD: Think of it Vijay a decade ago Federer's claims to be the GOAT would have been uncontested. Today we have a major battle on. In your book do titles only decide ultimately who will be the greatest of all time?
Vijay Amritraj: Those debates are best left for days when you are sitting with your friends over a bottle of wine. As to who among the men and women has the right to call themselves the greatest of all time, since the Open era, we have been fortunate enough to have witnessed a number of great champions in the sport. I have also been lucky to play against some of them in my career. The 2019 Wimbledon was the 50th consecutive year that I was involved with the event in some form. When you look back, Rod Laver is the only player to achieve a Grand Slam (winning all the majors in a year) twice in his career. That record has stood the test of time since 1969. It has been 50 years since anyone has won a calendar slam. When you see the big 3 playing, you could argue that all of them have a case for being the greatest of all time. In the women's game as well we have seen legendary players, be it Margaret Court or Billie Jean King, who has 20 Wimbledon titles to her name. Steffi Graff is the only player to complete a Golden Slam, which she did in 1988. Serena Williams is on the brink of history with her 23 grand slam single's titles and Martina Navratilova won so many grand slams that she has to be considered as well. We have seen great champions in this sport, but we can never compare different generations.
DSD: You, of course, played across two or three really competitive eras yourself, when you started out you still had Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall and John Newcombe active, how do those three compare to the current big 3?
Vijay Amritraj: My claim to fame was beating Rod Laver at the US Open in 1973. In those days it was mandatory to have a good serve and volley game to be successful on most courts, that's what the Australians of the late 60s and 70s thrived on. If you look at the game today, it has completely changed. At Wimbledon these days, the baseline after the match is completely chewed up, whereas the net is in pristine condition. So the change in the style of play has led to the success of the Europeans, from a time when the sport was dominated by the Australians and Americans.
DSD: That generation was fading and then Borg, Jimmy Connors and later John McEnroe made a memorable rivalry...
Vijay Amritraj: Every generation seems to throw up these great champions and Bjorn borg, Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe were certainly the greatest players of my generation in the 70s and 80s. I actually beat all three of them and there were a bunch of players, including myself, who were right on their heels. But there was no doubting the quality of Borg and co. Borg won six French Open titles and five Wimbledon crowns which is an incredible achievement as Wimbledon was the only grass event he played. The difference between the grass clay courts in those days was immense, which make borg's accomplishments even more impressive. Since then the courts have also completely changed. I predicted that Nadal would win Wimbledon before Federer would win the French Open and that's exactly how it turned out. The only occasion Federer won the french open was when Nadal lost to Robin Soderling. There were some great players in the late 80s and early 90s as well. Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg had an intense rivalry and that led into the Pete Sampras- Andre Agassi era, the American duo played out some spectacular matches. However, what stands out about the current big 3 is their consistency and longevity.
DSD: You, of course, beat all of them and there aren't many Indian tennis players who can say I beat the best in the world when they were at their peak.
Vijay Amritraj: I take great pride in the fact that I was able to beat the best in the world and play for my country at the highest level. I still feel I am representing my country in some capacity. When I played back in the day, the tricolour was hoisted because I was playing, so that filled me with a great sense of pride. As you got to the later round of the tournaments, the Indians would come out and support me in great numbers no matter where I was competing. That is something that motivated me to give my absolute all on the tour. When I beat the best players of my era, it was so special to me because it was so special to the people of my country.
DSD: When you look back on your career Vijay, of course, you were equally adept at singles and doubles but there were 2 Davis Cup finals as well for India. 1974 where we didn’t play and then 1987. Akhtar Ali once told me that not playing the 1974 final was heartbreaking for you. Is that the biggest regret of your career?
Vijay Amritraj: From an athlete's perspective, you cannot win it unless you're in it. So if you look at it from that perspective, it was certainly a missed opportunity. We were not given the chance to put India's name on the Davis Cup. In 1974, neither Australia nor the USA, who were the best two teams in the world at the time, were in the final. So I felt that we had a good chance of winning the Davis Cup. Whereas in 1987, we were massive underdogs and we lost comprehensively to Sweden, but it was a great effort from our side to reach the final, beating Australia in the semis. I was captain at the time and there was great camaraderie within the squad. Looking back at my career, I can proudly say that I was part of the Indian side that reached two Davis Cup finals.
DSD: So where did Indian tennis go wrong, Vijay? We had icons like Ramanathan Krishnan, then you then came Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi and then Sania Mirza. Yet the cupboard today is bare. A singles grand slam champion is a long way off.
Vijay Amritraj: Yes, I agree with your assessment. Something has gone wrong along the way. When I played the game, it took me a long time to be able to convince people in India that tennis could be a profession. In fact, my whole career I made an attempt to make it possible for people in India to pursue tennis as a career. However, in India, that mindset never existed and it takes time for it to change. There is no greater risk in your professional career than choosing to pursue a sport. So, usually, people in India are scared to take major risks when it comes to sport. You have to look at sport in India as a start-up, people have to be ready to invest their time and money in a wide array of talent, only then will we reap the benefits.
DSD: We will have to rebuild, a bit like rebuilding India. You do a lot of work here with your foundation Vijay and we have a long road ahead don’t we to get the economy back on track?
Vijay Amritraj: Livelihoods have been adversely affected. This crisis is a worldwide phenomenon. It is not restricted to just India or the USA. We now have to be resilient as a society to get through tough times like these. Our leaders have to inspire millions and lead us to the light at the end of the tunnel. We have to be able to lean on each other for support and be compassionate. We must show unity while being away from each other. This is a truly unprecedented crisis, only those who lived through world war two could have gone through something remotely like the situation we find ourselves in. Today, we as a species have to come together more than ever before.
DSD: Another famous son of Chennai, Viswanathan Anand told me some time back that the word was too fast and the virus took advantage. What are the lessons we all have to take on board from this unprecedented tragedy...
Vijay Amritraj: I think we must learn to serve those around us, whether it be our family, friends or community. Our attitude towards life must change and we must be more magnanimous. Our strength lies in our unity and health, so we must first take care of ourselves ad then try to help out as many people as we can. This pandemic also shows us how truly global the world is. The virus doesn't see nationality, financial status, caste or creed. Everyone is equally susceptible to the disease. We must stand together as one human race in the face of the virus.