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Vol. XXXIII No. 5, June 16-30, 2023

When Vijay got the Volvo to Madras

-- by Partab Ramchand

Fifty years have gone by but the fond memories are still fresh in the minds of tennis fans. Triumphs in important ATP Tour events, quarterfinal entries at both Wimbledon and the US Open and above all winning a Volvo car that was the cynosure of everyone in Madras. Yes, it is a year that Vijay Amritraj will always remember with pride whenever the TNTA president looks back on his long and illustrious career which lasted two decades. In his autobiography he himself notes that “despite a Davis Cup disaster of mega proportions 1973 in retrospect was my most successful year overall on the international circuit.”

Prodigiously talented Vijay clearly had it in him to become India’s leading player following the retirement of Ramanathan Krishnan at the start of the 70s. It didn’t take long for him to take centre stage and at the age of 19 he established himself as  the star of the future and one who would carry Indian tennis on his shoulders – which he did during the 70s and 80s.

It all began early in 1973 when he won his first Grand Prix title at Hong Kong defeating among others the Aussie trio of Geoff Masters, Mal Anderson and John Cooper. The three along with John Newcombe were members of the Australian team to play ­India in the Eastern zone final at Madras a little later. That was a tie to forget for Vijay for he, his brother Anand and Premjit Lal went down 4-0 to the visitors. But better times lay ahead for the Indian ace. As an unseeded player he performed creditably to reach the quarterfinals at Wimbledon before losing to the ultimate champion Jan Kodes in five sets. Vijay was in fact two points away from victory in the decider when he missed an easy smash allowing Kodes to claw back into the match.

He was off to the USA with more success starting with an amazing run in the Grand Prix event in New Hampshire. As Vijay notes “it was a dream week, a week on which fairy tales are built. Very few players could have enjoyed a tournament of such stunning victories plucked from such seemingly hopeless positions. I don’t know how I did it. It just kept happening and it felt great.” For a start he won his first round match 7-5 in the third set after his opponent Humphrey Hose of Venezuela led 5-0 and 40-0 in that decider. In the next round he defeated Jeff Austin 7-6 in the third set. This put him up against Rod Laver, one of his idols. The four-time Wimbledon champion led 7-6, 6-5 and had three match points at 40-0 on his serve but again Vijay turned the tables from this improbable situation to win 6-7, 7-5, 7-5.

Vijay Amritraj honoured with Golden Achievement Award by ITF and International Tennis Hall of Fame. Picture courtesy: Sportstar.

In the semifinals Vijay had a straightforward 6-3, 6-4 victory over John Alexander, and his opponent in the final was Jimmy Connors who was already hailed as a future superstar. But by now Vijay was not bothered about reputations. Yet again he was double match point down with Connors leading 5-2 and 40-15 in the decider. But as Vijay notes “Once again I got myself in that sort of a hole and once again I hauled myself out of it this time against one of the gutsiest fighters the game has ever known who even then hated to lose.” He saved two further match points, broke back twice to equalize and then broke serve a third successive time to win the match 7-5 and the title.

It was all quite unbelievable but reality started to hit home when he was presented with the winner’s cheque for 5,000 dollars. That was not all. He was also presented with the keys to a shiny new Volvo by Playboy’s Playmate of the Year. As Vijay says “we kept the car for eleven years and my father used to drive it around town at about 15 mph in great state never daring to risk so much as a scratch on the paintwork. It was a superb reminder of a rather remarkable week’s tennis.”

A couple of weeks later Vijay reached the final of another Grand Prix event in New Jersey but this time had to be content with the runner-up cheque going down to Colin Dibley of Australia. So he was in top shape going into the US Open. Vijay won the first two rounds comfortably and then was again up against Laver. In the form he was in, he matched the legendary Australian till 3-3 in the fifth set. Then Laver broke Vijay to go ahead 4-3 and it appeared to be the knockout blow. But Vijay broke right back and won the next two games to take the set 5-4 and the match. A straight sets victory over Allan Stone of Australia put Vijay in the quarterfinals. By now he was confidence personified and his game had improved by leaps and bounds thanks to frequent workouts with the great Pancho Gonzales. His opponent in the last eight was Ken Rosewall. Vijay reckoned he had the game to get the better of Rosewall but the iconic Australian outplayed him in straight sets.

 But there was one more significant triumph before the year was out – a win at home. The AITA had obtained 25,000 dollars from the government to host a Grand Prix event in this country for the first time. As he had done so often during the year Vijay came back from a hopeless situation to get the better of Mexico’s Raul Ramirez in the semifinals after being down 1-4 in the fifth set. He then defeated Mal Anderson in the final to win the title. He and Anand also made it to the doubles final where they lost to Ramirez and Jim McManus.

Vijay continued to play the ATP Circuit till 1990 reaching a career best ranking of 16, making it to the quarterfinals again at Wimbledon (1981) and the US Open (1974) besides representing the country in the Davis Cup and taking them to the final in 1974 and 1987. But he never really could top what he achieved in 1973 a year during which prominent tennis writer Bud Collins hailed Amritraj, Borg and Connors as the ABC of the game’s next generation. 

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