Vijay Amritraj interview: 'India's 1974 Davis Cup final boycott first instance of social injustice protest'
Vijay Amritraj, former India player, spoke to Firstpost on protests in tennis, tennis' reaction to inequality, the 1973 Wimbledon, the upcoming tournament and how he sees Indian tennis at present.
US Open 2020 arrives on the backdrop of protests against police brutality and coronavirus pandemic in what are unusual circumstances on and off the court. Naomi Osaka got the tennis world talking about the racial injustices by initially pulling out of the Western & Southern Open semi-final and then the tournament deciding to pause play for a day. The discussion on inequality is not new in tennis but it hasn't led a player to refuse to play in the recent past.
The tournament itself is bound to be different this time with the absence of fans. The often raucous New York crowd is probably louder than the other three Grand Slams and makes for a great spectacle. Unfortunately, that won't be the case this time. With little match time for most players, the US Open is set to be a daunting ask for everyone involved - which gives the lesser known players a chance to take on the biggies.
Vijay Amritraj, former India player, spoke to Firstpost on protests in tennis, tennis' reaction to inequality, the 1973 Wimbledon, the upcoming tournament and how he sees Indian tennis at present. Excerpts:
What do you make of Naomi Osaka's protest and of tennis pausing for a day?
If you go back in time, and you look at the first ever issue of this nature, the social injustice, was in 1974 when we reached the final of the Davis Cup and eventually we defaulted to South Africa because of a terrible and awful system in that country: The apartheid. At the time, it was a government system. So, for us(me and Anand), taking India to the finals of the Davis Cup was tough, but the chances of us winning the Davis Cup (versus South Africa) were very high. Especially at the time when America and Australia were the two favourites, chances like those were only a once in a lifetime.
So we were very concerned from a from a sporting perspective that we were obviously going to be taking a strong stand against the issue of apartheid which was so horribly against every single aspect in everyone's body that the Government of India and the Prime Minister Mrs. (Indira) Gandhi made the call to default the match. As an athlete you want to win the Davis Cup so badly, I was 20 years of old. And, you know, it's something that could have happened right there. Put India's name on the Davis Cup right there. And it didn't happen.
But it was by far the best thing we did. For what the world believed in and what we believed in. It was a default, there was no postponement, no cancellation for another time, it was a complete default. It was a major, major decision to make at the time. And obviously, a lot of things transpired post that. It was in 1991 when eventually the system was dropped, it took a while to do that. And it took us another 13 years to lead India into the final again (in 1987).
With sporting boycotts and for South African tennis, that was the first major one. But for us, it was a huge issue because we were supporting a way of life that we all believed in as the world's largest democracy. It is not something to be taken lightly. Sport is a miniscule portion of true way of life.
So the support is right. I mean that there are various ways for doing these things, but at the end of the day, you have to speak up, you have to do it with actions and you have to do it in the proper manner, so that there's a strong consensus within the group. And I think all sports, in this particular case all sports, have done it collectively.
Is tennis doing enough to address inequalities and injustices in the world?
For our sport, the great thing has been the issue of merit. There is no selections or any committee deciding how good you are, there isn't such a thing. We have the computer rankings that come out every Monday morning. And it's very simply how good you are and that's it. You win you move up the rankings you get into the tournament, it's got nothing to do with race, religion, colour, ethnicity or anything. So it has entirely to do with merit. We've seen many wonderful players of colour, men and women, who have done extremely well in our sport.
I don't think from a sporting perspective, there is any debate in tennis. Sure, there may be some issues in different parts of the world. As you come along, society takes a while to change in that regard, but from a sporting perspective, I don't think there is an issue at all. If you're good enough, you get in and if you're not good enough, you don't get in. Two African American girls playing the final of a major Grand Slam has been seen by millions on television. So I think that that's the easiest way to talk about our sport, basically based entirely on merit.
But Serena and Venus Williams, two pioneers of women's tennis, didn't compete at Indian Wells for 14 years after racist insults at Serena and their father Richard.
You can change laws, you can change a whole bunch of stuff and make everything work to perfection. But it doesn't necessarily mean you change the inherent feelings of the people in society and culture, in families and communities. You follow the law, yes, but it doesn't mean you can suddenly say 'You have to think that way'. And those things take time to change. It happens everywhere. It doesn't have to necessarily be on colour. It could be based on religion, it could be based on ethnicity, it could be based on economics, it could be based on so many things.
Take an example: In India, when I was growing up and playing and became a professional tennis player, nobody else was a professional athlete. The cricketers of my generation were all working for different companies, whether with insurance or airlines or banks. It was not that they were playing only Test matches full time, right? All my friends were working for other other companies as well, at least on the rolls. The feeling was 'How can you make a living from sport?'
Nobody believed that was feasible. Everybody thought that we were doing something completely ridiculous to spend our whole life doing this. But 30-35 years later, and nobody's asking (Sachin) Tendulkar or (MS) Dhoni, what do you do for a living? It's just a change in the thinking. Now a couple can say, I want my child to be the next PV Sindhu or Viswanathan Anand. But that wasn't the case in the 70s. It took a whole one or two generations of people to be able to change that mindset. So those things will take place over a period of time. But from our perspective, our sport's perspective, it's important to keep abreast of the challenges that we face on a daily basis.
You were part of the player's field at 1973 Wimbledon when 82 players pulled out because Yugoslavia's Nikki Pilic was barred from competing. What are your memories of that event?
That wasn't a social issue. It was just a question of what the players felt. It was very much an internal issue and had very little to do with the outside world. It was an internal issue because all the players supported a fellow player. That was it. So if you're not going to let him play, then we're not going to play, that kind of thing.
Moving to the US Open. From barely playing to five-setters at the US Open, are we headed towards a possible scenario where there are mass injuries?
I think it depends on how the boys and girls are trained during the pandemic. And how fit are they coming back. This Open, it's going to be a very, very good chance for lesser players to make a mark. Because it's a great equaliser. You haven't practiced, you haven't played the kind of tournaments you want to play, you haven't had the kind of play for weeks according to your normal schedule. All of those things would make a big difference, but at the same time, there's going to be a great degree of no tiredness. Normally when people come to US Open, there has been nine months of tennis. There's a different scenario going into it today. That's what will make this US Open very interesting, to see who will be able to break out of the back.
We use the term 'favourites' and 'upsets' a lot in tennis. A lot of that is on the basis of recent form and calibre of a player. Would it be unfair to use it at US Open when most are on a level playing field?
At the end of the day, the quality of someone's play is going to come out. You can't get away from the fact that Djokovic is the best player in the field. There's no question getting away again that Serena Williams is the best player in the field. Now whether they win or not, remains to be seen. There's going to be upsets, there's going to be changes, all kinds of interesting matches. Usually when the conditions are different, bad weather, too much wind, light drizzle, all those things make it a great equaliser between a good player and the lesser player. Nobody's been in this situation before so everybody has got to play it out and see how mentally strong they are to weather the storm. No crowds so you don't have anybody cheering for you after a spectacular point. Some people get on with the adrenalin. The lesser players might not. It depends.
There are three Indians in the US Open draw - Sumit Nagal, Rohan Bopanna and Divij Sharan. How do you assess Indian tennis on the basis of how we're faring in Grand Slams?
We have a long way to go. We need players in the top-50, top-20 to do well in the Davis Cup World Group, the Fed Cup same thing. Till we're able to play consistently in the Grand Slams, winning matches, winning tournaments to be able to get your ranking up in the top 50, 30 and 20, only then can you really do some serious damage in the Davis Cup and Fed Cup. We need those players to be able to do that. We haven't had anyone in the top 50 since Ramesh (Krishnan). That's 35 years ago. So that's where we are. That's the reality of it. That's where we need to stay focused and look at the next set of juniors and see who the best 30 boys and girls are and see how best they can improve over the next five-six years.
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Incredibly the US Open tennis starts on Monday aug 31st in New York with mo fans. Prakash n I will be doing a preview of this event along with tennis during Covid the favorites n challengers n the future of the tours in 2020 n beyond. We will be on Instagram live at 930pm india 12noon New York n 5pm UK times. Sunday aug 30th. Look forward to having everyone join us.
Vijay and Prakash Amritraj will be live on their Instagram accounts at 9.30 PM IST/12 PM EST/5 PM BST on 30th August to discuss the US Open.
The advice comes after a video posted on a pro-Russian YouTube account showed Djokovic's father Srdjan posing in Melbourne Park with a fan holding a Russian flag.
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