TENNIS DIPLOMAT : Vijay Amritraj Helps Pave the Way for Israel’s Davis Cup Team to Play in India Despite Terrorist Threats
Boris Becker thought he had it rough in Hartford, Conn., last weekend. He complained about the crowd, about how the U.S. Davis Cup team whipped it into a pro-American frenzy and about how his West German team felt like political prisoners on a foreign court.
Boom Boom, you should have seen New Delhi.
At Hartford, the only big guns were Becker and John McEnroe. At New Delhi, site of the India-Israel Davis Cup quarterfinal, there were stun guns, sub-machine guns, sharpshooters posted on buildings, and blockades at every entrance.
This was all in response to threats from a Palestinian terrorist group and possible student demonstrations. India has no diplomatic relations with Israel because it supports the Arab cause.
While the tennis world was focused on the impending demise of the U.S. squad, the most significant development in Davis Cup occurred at New Delhi. The match, which most never thought would come off, featured the first Israeli sporting team to play on Indian soil in two decades.
It probably wouldn’t have happened without veteran Vijay Amritraj’s input. The long-time Indian Davis Cup player spoke with government officials, pointing out the penalties for non-participation were harsh, and if India entered a competition it should abide by the rules.
“The penalties were too great,” said Amritraj, who had just returned to his home in Encino last week. “A $10,000 fine, plus a three-year suspension from Davis Cup. My tennis career would have ended. I’ve been around forever, but what about the juniors and the chances for them to see Davis Cup and to be part of Davis Cup? I mean, you’re killing the sport in the country.”
Fittingly, it took an Amritraj to ride to the rescue of a sport the Amritraj family built in India. Single-handedly.
For the last few years, Vijay Amritraj has been waiting, waiting for successors to take his place on the Indian Davis Cup team. Until then, he’ll keep playing, trying to summon a few more great matches from his body. He hasn’t been able to pursue a potentially lucrative acting career full time because of his tennis commitment to India.
So, for now, it’s Vijay Amritraj and Ramesh Krishnan. Vijay’s brother, Anand, plays doubles with him. Before, it was Vijay and Ramesh’s father, Ramanathan. Not many can say they played Davis Cup with the father, and later, with his son.
“To be able to represent your country in Davis Cup, that is the highest honor in my opinion,” Amritraj said. “Strangely enough, all of my best matches have come in Davis Cup. And I’ve been wanting to quit for a long time. I’m almost 34 now, and I’ve been on the road a little over 20 years, traveling almost every single week. And that’s a long time, whichever sport you’re talking about.”
Although just getting the match played in India without incident was a supreme accomplishment, Vijay, Anand and Krishnan came through with another shocker, on court.
India didn’t lose a set as it defeated Israel, 4-0, in the quarterfinals. In October, the semifinal opponent will be defending champion Australia, which is led by Wimbledon champion Pat Cash.
Krishnan, ranked No. 47, beat Israel’s Shlomo Glickstein to set up Amritraj’s match with Amos Mansdorf. The Israelis had been counting on Mansdorf, ranked No. 31, to win both of his singles matches, and felt sure it would take the doubles point.
After Krishnan’s victory, Amritraj and Mansdorf took the court. The Indian crowd shouted encouragement for its Davis Cup hero.
“The line that meant the most to me was someone saying, ‘Vijay, there’s no way you can lose.’ That’s unbelievable. I said to myself, How can those guys think that? Here I am, wearing a back brace and I’ve had surgery on my elbow.”
Mansdorf must have been thinking along those lines, too. The Israelis, having viewed Amritraj’s second-round exit at Wimbledon, were overconfident. Amritraj’s No. 326 ranking stood out in their minds, not his previous Davis Cup feats.
“They never really knew how good I could, or had, played,” Amritraj said. “Anand said to me, ‘You’re from a different generation, so the young guys didn’t know you.’ He (Mansdorf) was probably too young to even have been a ballboy at one of my matches.”
Amritraj had rallied to beat Argentina’s Martin Jaite after being down match point in the fourth set to win in five during a first-round tie in March. However, Amritraj made it easier on himself against Mansdorf, winning, 6-4, 6-4, 7-5.
The next day, Anand and Vijay clinched the semifinal berth with a 6-2, 6-2, 7-5 victory over Glickstein and Gilad Bloom.
“Now, it’s easy to say, well look here, we’re in the semifinals,” Amritraj said. “I would much rather say, win or lose, we should have been given the opportunity to win.
“As soon as we beat Argentina, everybody thought there was no way (the match against Israel) was going to be played. It was kind of disheartening. As soon as you have a big win, everybody keeps writing, ‘Well, too bad. We’ve come up against Israel after such a great win.’ All over the world it was said, ‘That match won’t be played.’ ”
Amritraj, of course, was there the last time politics interfered with India’s Davis Cup aspirations. In 1974, India defeated Japan, Australia and the Soviet Union to reach the finals against South Africa. That time, no discussion was even needed. The government of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi decided not to play, in protest of South Africa’s apartheid policy.
“Obviously, the first feeling was of disappointment because it is the dream of every individual to win Davis Cup for his country,” Amritraj said. “But in that particular instance, there was no question of it being the wrong choice. It was absolutely the right decision. There was no way we could have any type of communication whatsoever with the nation. We understood that, and that was the bottom line with the government saying no.”
This time, a yes meant India was able to stay on the world tennis map in addition to staying alive in Davis Cup. Amritraj has always felt responsible for making sure his actions reflected well on India. Thus, the pressure during the Davis Cup match was obviously heightened. If something went wrong, fingers might have been pointed at him.
As it turned out, not very much happened. Groups of 200 to 250 students staged protests, but behind the blockades of the roads leading to the club.
“Strangely enough, they never let us forget it was still a tennis match,” he said. “Our practice was not hampered. The crowds were no different during the match. Sure, they were frisked. And they went through metal detectors on the way in.
“I realized a lot of the responsibility rested on me, and in turn it put greater pressure on me for winning and losing. Strange, but true. It was just important that we played. I had stated very clearly, if we don’t play, we have no chance to win.”
After the Israeli match, and less so after defeating Argentina, the public reaction was tremendous in India. Others, too, took notice of the accomplishment.
“After we beat Argentina, I received a note from (NBC’s) Bud Collins,” Amritraj said. “It said, ‘If you keep treating tourists like this, how are you going to have any visitors come into your country? Even the Taj Mahal is not going to bring them in if you keep serving like this. Well done. The Madras Monsoon strikes again.’ ”