A white Ambassador would enter the Madras Christian High School and a batch of eight players rallying on the tennis courts would suddenly up their levels of play. The players represented the Britannia Amritraj Tennis Foundation and they were well aware of the presence of the lady seated in the white Ambassador.
In the world of tennis, Margaret Court is considered as one of the greatest tennis players of all time, holding a record 24-singles majors to her name. Court is definitely an on-court legend, but in India, there lived a lady, who went by the same first name as that of Court and was a legend in her own, off-the-court. The woman we are talking about is Margaret Amritraj, the mother of the infamous Amritraj brothers and the same dynamo seated in that white ambassador.
Margaret Amritraj was born in an undivided India. She was 20 years old when India attained Independence. By 1956, she had three children - Anand Amritraj, Vijay Amritraj and Ashok Amritraj. Anand and Vijay went on to become an iconic duo in Indian tennis. While Anand was studious and could manage the balance between academics and tennis, Vijay was asthmatic and weaker compared to his brother. Vijay clearly needed more attention.
However, as time passed by, Vijay grew in stature and coped up with the tennis world, achieving wins globally. When it appeared as if Vijay's tennis funding was looking topsy-turvy, Maggie, a woman of many talents, decided to run a business of selling cardboard boxes. These boxes were eventually sold across the entire region of South India. Vijay’s later success is known to one and all.Ashok Amritraj, Vijay Amritraj, Anand Amritraj
Fondly known as Maggie, Margaret Amritraj was a quiet and a sharp lady, steadfast to her principles. In 1985, Vijay Amritraj and Rajan Pillai instated the Britannia Amritraj Tennis (BAT) foundation. Vijay went ahead with the idea of BAT only if his mother agreed to run it. Eventually, Maggie decided to be the engine behind the BAT academy. It was laudable back then that despite sponsorship issues and the fact that tennis wasn't so popular in India, the BAT academy stood tall as a premier coaching institute of the nation.
"We based our academy, the first of its kind in Asia, entirely on merit. We had our own 10-point programme, a merit scale, which we followed to the T. It didn't mean that once you joined BAT, you were allowed to stay on for years. You had to improve. The MRF Academy was a copy of us." - Vijay Amritraj
Maggie's role at BAT was much more than an administrator. She touched the lives of the youngsters wielding tennis racquets to a great extent. We take a look at six such incidents that took place at BAT between Maggie and the players. These incidents will help you to get a general outlook of Maggie Amritraj.Maggie Amritraj during inauguraton of BAT Image : The Hindu
"At BAT she implemented the same workout ethics that we had to go through 20 years ago. We had a high-protein diet in the form if egg fillip. We were made to do two-mile laps before playing tennis. Twenty years later, the next generation in the academy had to do the same. She was a staunch disciplinarian with us, which didn't change with the boys at BAT." – Anand Amritraj
After stepping out of the white Ambassador…
"She wouldn't threaten us, but she had a way of making us feel scared. All it took was one look and none of us would say a word." – Gaurav Natekar, seven-time National Champion
"She didn't let me go without making me run those long laps." – Somdev Devvarman
" In a way, the boys forgot their own parents. She would taste the players' food to be absolutely certain that it was high on nutrition. Their meals were a spread of chapati, raagi, nuts, high on protein. Not just that, she would involve herself in their studies too. Often, we'd have boys who weren't great at studies. She (Maggie) was a bachelor's in chemistry. If she wasn't teaching chemistry, she'd hire tutors for other subjects. And they didn't have to pay for it. She didn't try teaching subjects she didn't know much about." - Thyagarajan Chandrasekaran, one of the coaches at BAT
"When Leander had to make his Holy Communion being a catholic, she stood in for him. Remember, the Communion is a significant moment for Catholics." – Anand Amritraj
BAT Shut Down & Maggie's later years
Initially, parents had faith and trust in Maggie and co that they would leave their kids at the academy knowing that they would be well supported in all aspects. However, when the 21st century kicked in, academic competitiveness in India took a great leap. Extra-curricular activities were often frowned upon and the board exams were pictured like a terrifying scenario in the minds of students much like modern times. This led to parents refraining from letting their kids pursue any other activities. Even if they did, there was a strict time constraint established. In 2005, BAT realized the growing tension in the minds of parents and students.
"Parents were getting tougher to deal with. In the past, they left the kids entirely to us. Suddenly we had to cope with people who didn't understand anything about the game. That's why we closed it down in 2005," said Anand.
The other reason cited by Vijay Amritraj for the closure of BAT was, "Sponsorship of such a massive and long programme is proving to be a near impossibility. Thus, the BAT’s closure has become necessary."
Thus, after two decades of manufacturing great athletes like Leander Paes, Gaurav Natekar, Somdev Devvarman, Asif Ismail and Rohit Rajpal, BAT had to be folded.
As for Maggie, she had unfortunate physical accidents in every phase of her life. In 1964, due to a kerosene burn, Maggie had to undergo skin grafting. In the late 90s, metal plates had to be inserted in her wrist after a car collision in the United States.
"Once while explaining the function of a machine, her hand got trapped into it. She had to reconstruct her hand during a nine-hour surgery during which she lost a lot of blood. They told her she won't be able to eat, write and drive. Eventually she did all three so that l could play." - Anand Amritraj
Maggie Amritraj breathed her past on April 20, 2019 at 6.15 a.m. She was hospitalized for three weeks as she suffered from a stroke on 21st March.
She lived for a little over nine decades and was instrumental in inspiring many Indian tennis players back in the day. Maggie's favorite quote was, "The heights by great men reached and kept were not attained by sudden flight..."
Boy she did stand-by those words penned by H.W.Longfellow.