Tennis always has been at Center Court in the Amritraj family.

Their love of the sport is what lured brothers Anand and Vijay Amritraj to England nearly two weeks ago to compete in the men's 45-and-over doubles invitational tournament at Wimbledon.

"This is absolutely the best two weeks of the year," Anand said by telephone from England. "Wimbledon is special. It's everywhere, and all of England follows it. The whole place comes alive. If you don't like tennis, you shouldn't be here right now."

Cousins Prakash and Stephen Amritraj aren't there, but not because they don't like tennis.

Rather, it was dedication and a desire to improve their games that prompted the junior-circuit players to stay home instead of accompanying their parents on what has become an annual pilgrimage to the All England Lawn Tennis Club. The cousins competed last week in the Southern California section tournament.

Otherwise, the younger Amritrajes have done a good job of following in their fathers' footsteps.

Prakash, the older of Vijay's two sons, is ranked No. 6 in Southern California in the boys' 16 division by the U.S. Tennis Assn. Stephen, Anand's only child, is ranked No. 12 in the same division.

"We've always talked about creating another age of Amritrajes," Stephen said.

Vijay, an Encino resident, and Anand, who lives in Calabasas, dominated the first era.

They helped the family keep a stranglehold on the junior national championship in their native India for 10 years, before embarking on successful professional careers. They played singles and formed a doubles team of remarkable longevity.

Anand, 47, and Vijay, 45, competed in the 45-and-over division at Wimbledon for the first time, 27 years after their first appearance together at Wimbledon in 1972. The unseeded Amritrajes lost to No. 2-seeded Tom Gullikson and Brian Gottfried, 6-1, 3-6, 11-9, on Wednesday in the first round.

The Amritrajes' first appearance in the 45-and-over division coincided with the 10-year anniversary of a memorable victory.

They won a Wimbledon championship in the men's 35-and-over doubles invitational in 1989, defeating Bob Lutz and Dick Stockton, 6-3, 6-2, in the final. En route to the title, they beat Gullikson and his twin, the late Tim Gullikson, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4, in the semifinals.

The Amritrajes have competed at Wimbledon either in the men's main draw or in age-group divisions every year since 1972. They never won a main-draw title, but twice reached the men's doubles semifinals, losing to Gottfried and Raul Ramirez in 1976, and to John McEnroe and Peter Fleming in 1981.

The Amritrajes won 14 doubles titles on the Assn. of Tennis Professionals tour and in Grand Prix events, and played for India in the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, where Vijay took a turn carrying the Olympic torch.

They played Davis Cup for India from 1972-89, losing to Sweden in the 1987 final, and defaulting to South Africa in the 1974 final in protest of apartheid.

They also competed professionally in singles. Vijay advanced to the Wimbledon quarterfinals in 1973 and '77. Anand reached the third round at Wimbledon in 1976.

"We really love it here," said Vijay, who was ATP president from 1989-94. "We'd probably play here until we can't walk anymore, if they'll let us.

"It's a magical place. It's a major event and it's really very modern. But there's not one commercial billboard anywhere."

Beyond the competition and ambience of the tournament, the Amritrajes are enjoying a rare chance to play on grass.

"The sport used to be called lawn tennis, until they took the lawn out of it," Vijay said. "This is the roots of the game. Wimbledon has managed to maintain the tradition and the history of the sport."

Wimbledon inspired Prakash to dedicate himself to tennis.

On one of his visits to the All England Club, Vijay brought his son, then 9, into the men's locker room.

"He was sitting between Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi, and he was beside himself, absolutely beside himself," Vijay said. "It sort of changed his attitude toward tennis."

Said Prakash: "I saw all these players, and it all became a lot more clear what I might be able to do. All of a sudden, I became a lot more serious about it, and I won my first tournament soon after that."

Prakash and Stephen Amritraj, both 15, are the No. 1 players on their high school teams. Prakash is a junior at Harvard-Westlake, Stephen is a sophomore at Crespi.

Like their fathers, sometimes they play--and win--together.

Prakash and Stephen finished 1997 as the top-ranked boys' 14 doubles team in Southern California after winning the junior sectional title.

"Our fathers are great," Stephen said. "They're basically the models for everything Prakash and I want to do in the future."

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