“Vijay Amritraj“, the name itself is an inspiration for every Indian who grow up in 1970s and 1980s. Long before Sunil Gavaskar , Kapil Dev or P T Usha put India in International sports map, it was Vijay who turned world attention to India for right reasons. I think it was 1987, when I got galvanized by Vijay’s world cup victory that I joined Tennis coaching in T.Nagar Ladies(!) club behind Holy Angels’ school in Pondy Bazaar. It was the popular Tennis coaching centre then, and this <1 year of Tennis coaching was the only sporting activity that I ever put in effort learning. My dear readers, if you are wondering how good I was with my Tennis back in 1987, I will just say this. My tennis coach, when he saw me running around the field during warm-ups, used to call me as Carl Lewis (an Olympic Gold runner) and not by any Tennis player name. The rigorous regiment that Tennis (or any sport) demanded was enough for me to give up after sometime.
Last week as I read the invite from Indo American Chamber of Commerce (IACC) to listen to Vijay Amritraj as part of their “Listen to the leader” series, I know this is where I will be today morning. The man at 61 years was looking twenty years younger and his energy was infectious.
Below are few points that I noted down and paraphrased from his life journey he shared with us today.
- Chennai is my hometown, this is where I was born and I make sure I come here every month to spend one weekend with my mother who lives here. My parents were my role models, and my my mother my biggest motivation. I was a sick kid, and I spent many days in a month in Railway hospital beds for I.V. injections, it was then the Doctor there advised I take up any outdoor sports and that’s how I started Tennis
- My early Tennis days were challenging, when we (Anand Amritraj and myself) left Bombay to travel abroad we had 5 Pounds in our pocket. Anand was brilliant in Chess, we used to bet 10 pounds for a match of chess between Anand and other room mates in the dormitories, with 10 pounds being a money we never had with us
- When I first landed in USA in 1970s we stayed with a lovely couple in Columbus Ohio, who had a placard with our names, even though we were the only India boys walking out and holding 20 Tennis rackets under our arms. They for some reason assumed we (Ashok & myself) didn’t speak a word of English and we are vegeterians. They were wrong on both accounts. The friendship that started that day with them has continued ever since
- Later Tennis days were not easy too. I had my fare share of events outside my performance affecting too. But looking back that’s what I feel added the spice to life and made me wiser and who I am today. For instance in 1974 we (Anand Amritraj and myself) we were the favourites to win Davos World Cup, having reached to finals against South Africa. Unfortunately India at that time didn’t have sporting contacts with South Africa due to prevailing Apartheid there, and then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had to order India to forfeit the match. Similar political pressure came back to haunt us in 1987 when we reached to play Israel against a match, Indian political establishment stopped it, quoting India’s lack of diplomatic ties with Israel. Luckily I could meet then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and convince him to agree to invite Israel to play the match in New Delhi, which we did and won it for India. After the match Israel team captain said to me, “Vijay we don’t know whether we will ever visit India again, can you arrange us to see Taj Mahal and return safely”. Government of India was gracious to do that and it was more than a decade later that India established diplomatic contacts with Israel. Looking back I am glad it all started with a Tennis match in 1987, that’s the power of sports
- For me for boycott can never be an answer. There is no point in saying my best won’t meet your best. And Sports can be best way to contact/communicate
- There were two instances among others in my life in the Tennis court when I was sick enough to return in a stretcher that I perceived and won the day’s match. For me, it’s about character, what you can and cannot do
- Once Spanish Tennis captain asked me “Vijay, why there are not more of Tennis players from India”, I answered its for the same reason that Spain doesn’t have more of Software Engineers
- We (India) should take part in everything (sports) we get a chance to. In India when it comes to sports we take the literal meaning of the (informal) olympic motto “The most important thing is not to win but to take part!“
- We can do lot more with sports for trade, networking, nations, etc. See the example, when David Cameron and Barack Obama meet first they spoke of Basketball.
- I feel every child, where ever they live should play every day from 4PM to 6PM, they need the physical activity and outdoor exposure. Education and Sports should go hand in hand
- In USA (where I live now) kids play sports to ensure they get into best of universities which otherwise is out of reach for them. For example, my son (Prakash Amritraj) who had tough time in academics, got offers from over 50 universities to join after he (finally) in a Tennis tournament . He was the first ethnic to do so
- In India especially Tamil Nadu, we are conservative. But sports is a risky business, how much ever effort and time you have put into it, there is no guarantee you will win
- In my early days in Los Angeles, most of the film industry people played Tennis, as a result Tennis court (nowadays business is done over Golf courses) became a place for me to socialize, build relationships and get into movie business
- When I was serving in United Nations goodwill ambassador I traveled to many disaster affected places, but where ever I went I took with me sports equipments that I can give it to the kids there to play. I feel there can be nothing more powerful to rebuild their lives than sports and the benefits it brings in you
- For me, there are five important Ds. They are Desire, Discipline, Dedication, Determination, Divine (blessings)
- Finally, when asked in a recent interview I said my biggest achievement is that my kids call me twice a day. In life we keeping chasing our tails all the time and miss out on important things
Mr.Vijay Amritraj was easy going and humble, after the event he took time to walk to each one of us and shook our hands. Those of us who requested for a photograph (this is the new autograph) with him, he posed patiently. The first time after I had posed with him for a picture, I had few anxious moments as the gentleman who handled my phone had taken a ghostly picture. By the time I deducted this, Vijay had walked out of the hall, but he was nice to agree for a retake (being an actor himself). He posed once more with his same unchanging smile!.
I am feeling ecstatic as I look myself with Vijay in the picture above. Thanks Vijay, appreciate it.