Down memory lane: Anand Amritraj recalls an era when prize money was meagre and Grand Slam champs stood in line for food

Armed with a sharp memory and an inexhaustible capacity for exasperation, Anand Amritraj is rattling off tales of his playing days, when tennis was still an expensive sport but hardly rich. In Pune to commentate on the Tata Open Maharashtra, he takes a pause while recalling India's 1974 tie against USSR that happened in the city.

"Vijay (Amritraj) and I were talking about it, thinking whether it was the same airport then," he says, sitting in a lobby of a business hotel. "But I think when we came here in 1974, we came by train. It would take more than 24 hours. Imagine, we were the No 1 and No 2 players in India!"

The 1974 tie, which India won 3-1, came only a month after possibly the best Grand Slam fortnight in the lives of the two brothers. Vijay, the younger brother, had defeated the reigning French Open champion Bjorn Borg in five sets on the Forest Hills grass-courts. On the outside court, Anand, who had picked up an ankle injury in the first round had used only a rudimentary method of treating it with ice, defeated Spain's Manuel Orantes (1975 US Open champion) in straight sets. Without any protest, they jumped on the train to make the 1087km journey from Madras to Poona.

It was the age of austerity.

 Down memory lane: Anand Amritraj recalls an era when prize money was meagre and Grand Slam champs stood in line for food

Anand Amritraj, along with brother Vijay, were flagbearers of Indian tennis and led India to the Davis Cup finals in 1974 and 1987. AFP/Marty Melville

When Wimbledon entered the Open Era in 1968, the total prize money was £26,150 with the men's winner taking home £2000. Fifty years later, in 2018, it had rocketed to £34,000,000. The 2019 Australian Open, which ended a week ago, had a total prize money of $62.5 million and the singles first round losers received $75,000.

"We played for the love of the game and 100-pound gift certificate from Wimbledon," says Amritraj. "Now if you play, you get upwards of $50,000 just to show up in singles and $10,000 in doubles. So if you play the four Grand Slams, singles and doubles, lose first round in all four, you make $240,000. It's a joke!

"But then you have to play well all year so that you can get into these four events, which is a goal for most players."

Amritraj recalls his first brush with Wimbledon, even then the most prestigious Slam, in 1971 at the age of 19. With his tennis kit in tow, he had to travel to the tube station nearest to Roehampton – where Wimbledon qualifiers take place till date — then take a bus, and walk the last mile on a cold, drizzly day.

"After that, we had to go and play a five-set match, no tie-breakers," recalls the 66-year-old.

"In the qualifying at Wimbledon, there was never a linesman. Maybe, an umpire. Definitely no ball boys. So a best-of-five match took three hours easily. But then the plus point is, you could take one minute between points, slowly go and pick up the ball. You had to rely on the umpire's calls and hope the guy you are playing is not a cheat."

Even at Wimbledon, there were no chairs to sit down during change of ends till 1972.

"We struggled a lot when we were young. No money and basically no real resources," he says. "Luckily Vijay and I travelled together so it made life a lot easier."

At the time the Amritraj brothers were travelling the tour, India was still a closed economy. Which meant they could not take along a lot of hard cash when they left for one of their European sojourns. "We used to get three pounds per ticket," he says. "How are you supposed to survive on that? My mother used to send one pound notes to Holland or Poland or wherever we were playing because she thought we didn't have enough money to eat."

One of the ways they would make the extra buck on the tour was: Vijay would scout opponents for Anand to play chess with and bet on the results.

"Mostly it used to be against fellow tennis players," says Anand. "But Vijay would have me play anyone for the money!

"Vijay used to bet on me playing chess with the Russians, Hungarians, Czechs, who were all good chess players. He used to go to them and ask, 'you want to play my brother for 10-20 bucks?' We didn't have the money most often, but we scrounged up that money somehow just in case I lost. But 95% of the time I won. So we won that money and went and had Indian food, which was a luxury back then."

Amritraj's first tennis racquet, he remembers, was a Dunlop Max Ply ("which my mother begged and borrowed and got it from England"). At the time, players used to get only three, or a maximum of four, racquets from their respective sponsors at the beginning of the year and had to make do with those.

"There were characters in our era also, a lot more than today's," says Amritraj. "We used to fling the racquet but never broke it. We couldn't afford to! We strung the racquet once a year, or when the string broke. Nowadays, even if they haven't used the racquet, the cut the strings and get it restrung. I don't get that. It's a complete waste of money. And strings!"

When it came to equipment, India had a trick up their sleeve during the Davis Cup matches.

"The Indian-made balls — Nanco and Matchless — were terrible," he laughs on. "We used them in the Davis Cup and it gave us a distinct advantage. You hit the same shot, one ball will go this way one will go that way, one would bounce the other wouldn't. We were used to it. So we made sure we had those when the foreign guys came in; they couldn't hack it."

Amritraj recalls fondly of the time when players not only had to be great shufflers on slick grass courts (three out of the four Slams were played on the surface) but also hustlers at heart.

"We would do our own laundry, go to a Laundromat and do it," he says. "We used to do it maybe twice a week. Quite often we had to wear the same thing.

"We could hire only half a court for practice because it was expensive. There were no trainers, no physios at the tournament. No ice, hardly any water. When you go play all these tournaments in Europe, you had to bring your own water. If you twisted your ankle, you had to go find ice from somewhere and treat yourself.

"We had flimsy Dunlop or Slazenger shoes — it was basically a canvas shoe. So your footing had to be amazing. You had to make do with what you had. You were not picky about anything, about things like what to eat before the match. If you had to play on an empty stomach, you played on an empty stomach.

"We got three free racquets, we were happy. If we got free food we were even happier. In the 1980s, after (Stefan) Edberg had already become a Wimbledon champion, he used to stand in the line with everyone else for his lunch coupon. All the Swedes; Wimbledon champions, Davis Cup champions. No one sat in their room and ordered from room service!"

"Simple times," says the man known for his flamboyance. Lost times.

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Updated Date: Apr 18, 2019 21:55:12 IST