India's tennis icon Vijay Amritraj’s career speaks about the phenomenon he was. He still is considered the biggest star of the country who went on head-to-head and trounced legends like Jimmy Connors, Björn Borg and Rod Laver still remains the highest-ranked Indian singles player. In 1976, he entered the Wimbledon doubles semifinals. In 1973 and 1976 he entered the doubles quarterfinals of the US Open. On July 7, 1980, he was at his career-best, world ranking number 16 in singles. The Padma Shri awardee was the part of the 1974 and 1987 Davis Cup team that reached the finals. He is also an actor who appeared in the film Octopussy, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home and more.
As he turns sixty-seven-year-old today, here's remembering a particular episode from 1974, where India could have got it's the biggest breakthrough in tennis. Forty-six years ago, India had reached the final of the Davis Cup. However, the then Government forced the team to boycott the match as the host, South Africa, was under apartheid rule.
Back then, the coveted trophy had never been won by any country outside the US, UK, France and Australia. The two developing countries' dream runs to the final of the Davis Cup ended up in a disappointing run. With the Indira Gandhi government boycotting the final, it elicited different opinions across the country. While some could come to peace, many claimed it was an enormous mistake which denied the country one of its biggest glory in sports.
The narrative that came in front during the 1974 Davis Cup was of two brothers, who were also teammates and as well as rivals. Vijay Amritraj, then 20, and his brother Anand, 22, were India’s top two players. In the quarters, India was tested against defending champions Australia. It was India's Jasjit Singh produced some inspired tennis to beat Australia’s Bob Giltinan, 11-9, 9-11, 12-10, 8-6, in a marathon opening match. Australia’s John Alexander beat both Vijay and Singh in their singles rubbers, while Vijay and Anand won what might have been the most arduous doubles match in Davis Cup history, 17-15, 6-8, 6-3, 16-18, 6-4. With the score knotted at 2-2, India’s hopes rested on Vijay, who rose to the occasion, clinching the tie with a 6-1, 5-7, 6-4, 6-4 thumping of Bob Giltinan. That match had turned Vijay Amritraj into a national hero overnight.
In the semis, India was up against the Soviet Union by 2-1, Down two sets to one against Teimuraz Kakulia, Anand came back from the dead to win the match, which virtually paved the way to the final.
On the other hand, South Africa had defeated Italy to reach the final, and after weeks of speculation that a compromise might be reached to play at a neutral site, the Indian government decided to boycott the final. South Africa was handed the trophy uncontested which came as a big blow to India. Forty-five years later, no consensus has been reached whether boycotting the trophy was justified. While Anand Amritraj said “I think it was a bad call. The only time we had an excellent chance of winning the Davis Cup, we gave it away.” Vijay contradicted and supported the Indian government's move. “As a sportsman, I was disappointed, but as an individual, I took pride in the fact that my government made the right call,” he said.
South Africa never made it to another final, and India still has not won the Cup.