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Vijay Amritraj: Tennis and Beyond

On a warm April morning in 2017, at a special tennis clinic organized by the Wimbledon Foundation at the tennis lawns of the 100-year-old Delhi Gymkhana Club, 20 children from the Govindpuri community of Delhi awaited the arrival of a tennis legend. These children, receiving free education in a Delhi Government school, had recently been introduced to tennis as part of a tennis-for-development school program implemented by Magic Bus India Foundation, supported and funded by the Wimbledon Foundation.

The tennis icon was none other than Vijay Amritraj. The children were completely unaware of his accomplishments. For the next hour, these 20 children had the time of their lives with Vijay Amritraj. He rallied with them, did trick shots, fitness drills and overall had a ball with them. The children fell deeper in love with the game that had opened up several new opportunities to help them remain in school as long as possible.

Vijay Amritraj was best suited to inspire this group of children. Apart from being a successful former international tennis player, he reinvented himself after retiring and became an icon across generations. His love and passion to continue engaging with the sport grew manifold. In a statement as part of his brand partnership commitment with Rolex, he said, “The tennis racquet and I go hand in hand. It’s given me things I would have never dreamt of having. But, more than anything else, it gave me my health”.

A brief recap of Amritraj’s professional tennis career and beyond:

  1. Singles ranking of 16: tour and Davis Cup wins over Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Ivan Lendl, John Newcombe and Stan Smith.

  2. Led India to two Davis Cup finals in 1974 and 1987. He was part of the Indian Davis Cup team for 19 years.

  3. Addressed the United Nations in May 1988, on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the Special Committee against apartheid in South Africa.

  4. Appointed as the United Nations Messenger of Peace on February 9, 2001 by Secretary General Kofi Anan.

  5. Awarded the Padma Shri by the Government of India, for enhancing India's image overseas.

  6. President of the ATP Tour Player Council from 1989 through 1992 and again in 1994.

  7. Awarded the prestigious Pierre Coubertin Award by the United Nations in Paris in November 1988 and is the only Asian to receive the honor.

  8. Founded The Vijay Amritraj Foundation in 2006, an international charity serving the destitute of India.

  9. Lead anchor and host, since 1991, for "ESPN Star Sports" broadcasting to the world's largest sporting audience. He has covered Wimbledon, the US Open, Australian Open, and other ATP Tour events, along with the PGA Masters.

  10. Awarded the prestigious key to the city of Los Angeles by Mayor Tom Bradley in 1978.

Vijay Amritraj is arguably one of the world's most recognizable sports celebrities. He has been, by far, the greatest player India has had in the open era. He has won more ATP tour singles titles than any other male Asian player and is also the first Indian to have a television series in the United States of America. He has been associated with Wimbledon for 50 years, both as a player on the professional and senior tour and as a commentator. A role in the James Bond film, Octopussy, and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, a wine collection inspired by his legendary feats and iconic style of play, have all added to his celebrity status. He is also the current brand Ambassador for Rolex and Mastercard.

As a child, Amritraj suffered from several respiratory illnesses. In order to improve his health, his parents Robert and Maggie encouraged him to start playing tennis. His mother, in particular, encouraged him to play the sport for good health. As Amritraj excelled at tennis and was on the cusp of choosing tennis as a career, she ensured she could pay for his tennis, even starting a business to fund it. In a speech delivered in 2019 for Founders Day at The Doon School, Dehradun, Amritraj passionately recalled his mother’s persistence, patience, hard work, compassion and loving attributes to take him on a journey from ill health to professional tennis. As his mother had reinvented herself to ensure her son maximized his potential, Amritraj reinvented himself post retirement.

He was well aware of how politics and business worked in India, and successfully helped strategize the entry of global media networks such as ABC, ESPN, Sony Entertainment, Turner Broadcasting, and IMG into India and other parts of South Asia. He served as Chairman of Grey First Serve, Sri Lanka's leading advertising agency, and as a director of The Leela Group of Hotels in India. As his celebrity status grew, he turned his attention to some of the world’s greatest challenges: conflict, racism, hunger, poverty amongst others.

In May 1988, Amritraj addressed the United Nations on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the Special Committee against apartheid in South Africa. In 1974, he had led India to a maiden Davis Cup Final clash against South Africa. However, the Indian government boycotted the 1974 final in protest of South Africa’s system of apartheid. In an August 2020 interview to Firstpost, Amritraj spoke passionately about the importance of this boycott and his strong views on the subject.

In a separate 2019 interview, when asked about his thoughts to improve the tennis standards in India, Amritraj answered by stating the country had more important issues to focus on such as healthcare and education. He did subsequently answer the question on how best to achieve excellence in tennis. In fact, it was his tennis excellence coaching program in the late eighties that groomed one India’s finest player in the modern era – Leander Paes.

In February 2001, the then UN Secretary General, Kofi Anan, appointed Amritraj as the United Nations Messenger of Peace. This appointment helped him in his efforts to build a better world for those in need. In 2006, he set up The Vijay Amritraj Foundation. Since its establishment, the foundation has raised several thousands of dollars and has supported dozens of charities in India. With a sharp focus on funding smaller India-based charities who do not have the ability to raise money or awareness for their causes, he has brought hope, help and healing to the defenseless and innocent victims of disease, tragedy and circumstance in India.

To this day, Amritraj continues to be a role model for current and former tennis players. The way he conducted himself on and off the tennis court is an embodiment of how one can leverage their celebrity status to bring attention to some of the world’s greatest challenges and also offer solutions to overcome them.

Article by Jaideep Bhatia

About the author

Jaideep Bhatia is the co-Founder of EduTennis, and is the Honorary Secretary of the India Chapter of the International Lawn Tennis Club. With over 20 years of experience as a tennis coach, he is now using his tennis experience to craft a life-skills training program using this 200-year-old game.

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