In the 1970s, there were not many sporting icons in India. However, a tall (6’4) and sturdy tennis player from Chennai, Vijay Amritraj captured the imagination of the nation with his amazing exploits in an era when India was hardly a sporting powerhouse. In his heyday, Vijay carved a niche for himself in the singles and doubles categories. His impact was such that he quickly became part of the A (Amritraj), B (Borg), C (Connors) of the tennis fraternity. With landmark victories over big names such as John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors and Bjorn Borg in singles category, he became the poster boy for a new generation of tennis players. Vijay also served his nation very well, especially in the Davis Cup. He along with his brother, Anand Amritraj, forged a formidable partnership in the doubles category and fashioned many historic wins for the country. After hanging up his boots, Vijay donned the attire of a sports commentator. In his new avatar, he continues to wow everyone with his precise analysis of the game, year after year, at the Grand Slams. A legendary player and a true gentleman, Vijay took time out of his busy schedule and spoke exclusively to Arijeet Dutta about his ambitious Champions Tennis League (CTL), Indian tennis, ATP tour, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.
Edited Excerpts from an Interview
What are your expectations from the second season of the CTL? Did the first season meet your expectations?
One of the biggest challenges one faces as an organiser is how to squeeze in a league tournament, featuring top players. Tennis as you know, in a calendar year, involves their schedules and travels around the world. As a matter of fact, the London ATP tour finals end on 22 November. So you can imagine the tight schedule of the players on the tour. The good thing is that all top players are quite keen to come and play. Basically, the economics has to work in an event like this.
As far as the second season is concerned, I expect it to be a bit better than last year. All the teams are dead even and steady. This makes the format interesting and one to look forward to.
Who are the stars that Indian tennis fans should look forward to? Which clashes in the tournament are expected to generate maximum interest?
We have devised a star-studded event to attract maximum number of fans. There is one legendary player along with a male and a female player. The beauty of the ctl is that there will not be a completely one-sided contest on court. Since the rankings are close, the matches are expected to be hard fought. So, fans can expect some high-octane thrillers. There are two teams competing against each other, which is called a tie. Each tie consists of five sets and each set is a match. So the format as such is very competitive. As far as the big stars are concerned, this time there is the 1996 Wimbledon men’s singles winner from Holland, Richard Krajicek. Besides Krajicek, there is the former world number one player from Austria, a clay court specialist in the 1990s, Thomas Muster, who won the 1995 French Open. On the women’s side, one can see in action the recently retired 33-year-old Flavia Pennetta. Panetta, you know, was the surprise women’s singles title winner at the US Open 2015. These are big names and they will definitely make the league interesting.
Do you think CTL ’s popularity could be hit, as it is similar to the Mahesh Bhupathi-backed International Premier Tennis League (IPTL)?
Well, as a matter of fact, it does not worry us at all. Mahesh’s IPTL, in fact, makes no difference to us, simply for the reason that his league is based in Asia. It has venues such as Dubai, Kobe (Japan), Manila, New Delhi and Singapore. Our league (CTL), on the other hand, is played in six Indian cities, such as Mumbai, Raipur, Nagpur, Chandigarh and Hyderabad, with the intention to make tennis popular among the local fans. The aim of the CTL is to give the young and talented Indian players a chance to rub shoulders with the big names in the world of tennis. By interacting with them and sharing tips, they get to learn a lot.
In fact, besides the Chennai Open, this is the only other event that brings in world-class players. The junior players will get an opportunity to meet some of the legends of the game and get some much-needed inspiration. Overall, the ctl will help evolve Indian tennis.
Coming back to Indian tennis, what is the road ahead for us in the Davis Cup? And how do you see us getting back in the World Group again?
A very good question. To get back into the World Group we, most urgently and importantly, need to have singles player in the top 50 and in the top 100. Yuki Bhambri recently made it to the top hundred, currently 89 in the ATP(Association of Tennis Professionals) ranking. India need good singles players. Doubles is all right, but the real test comes in the singles. As far as getting back into the elite league (World Group) is concerned, one should also hope that leading players give the Davis Cup a miss.