When Wimbledon gets underway, Vijay Amritraj will be back doing what he does best these days – bringing us the best of tennis live from London on our TV sets. The gregarious Indian tennis legend was in Delhi recently to attend Road to Wimbledon, a programme organised by Rolex to raise awareness about the championship and engage young people with the game. The luxury watch brand has been the Official Time Keeper of Wimbledon since 1978, and Amritraj has been a Rolex Testimonee since 2005. He has, of course, worn his famous gold Rolex Day-Date for over 40 years now. He spoke to MW about his expectations from this year’s championship, as well as the state of Indian tennis.
MW: You are in Delhi for the Road to Wimbledon programme. How do you think it will benefit Indian tennis fans and enthusiasts?
Vijay Amritraj: The most important part of the initiative is to be able to create an inspiration and interest in youngsters who have the opportunity to participate in the programme. Having played junior tournaments in different parts of the country to get to Delhi to the Masters, and get to play at the prestigious Delhi Gymkhana Club, then one day at the lawns of Wimbledon is something that will inspire any young tennis enthusiast, especially one who wants to play tennis as a profession.
MW: The plight of competitive tennis in India has hardly changed since the days you reached the Wimbledon and US Open quarter-finals in 1973. We barely produce one or two players every decade who make their mark internationally. Why do you think this has happened, and will things ever change?
VA: Things have unfortunately deteriorated as far as singles is concerned, from when we left the sport. The last men’s singles player to play at Wimbledon centre court was me, back in 1981. This was 35-36 years ago! So, I think we must really stay focussed on improving the quality of our singles players, because without good singles players, in both men and women, we won’t be able to go to the world group to the Davis Cup and the Fed Cup. Without this, we won’t be able to make a mark on the international tennis circuit. Plus, we don’t have any of our boys and girls playing in the Grand Slam events or tour events, because they can’t get in with low rankings. I think we need to focus on that first and get the level of commitment and sacrifice, there is more than enough sponsorship today to play tournaments overseas and domestically. The opportunities are there, but it is important to stay with the commitment, discipline, sacrifice and whatever it takes to make that top 50 in men’s and women’s tennis.
MW: Chennai is still the only place that hosts an ATP tournament in India. Will there be ever a time when this country will get into the league of even the likes of China, Dubai and Singapore, when it comes to organising tennis tournaments that matter?
VA:Hard to say — for a country like India to have even one tournament is important. When I brought this in 21 years ago as the president of the ATP, it was a big plus. Unfortunately, nobody has been able to put an event here since then. It remains to be seen how long this will last. We are struggling, with no players in the top 50 and hardly any tournaments on the ATP tour.
MW: What do you think of Mahesh Bhupathi’s decision to exclude Leander Paes from the Davis Cup team, for the first time in 27 years?
VA: It’s his call. He is the captain, he can do what he wants. The most important thing is to win the cup, everything else is irrelevant.
MW: What is your prediction for Wimbledon this year?
VA: The good thing about men’s and women’s tennis is the fact that it is quite open. Federer, of course, had a remarkable start to the year, but he decided to skip the French Open and some of the big clay court tournaments. What he will be ready for is the freshness of the grass court season by the time he gets to London. And I think at Wimbledon, he will be one of the top 3 or 4 favourites, without a question.
MW: You are among the most popular tennis commentators in the world — how long do you see yourself continuing as a commentator?
VA: It’s an enjoyable thing to do. I have done it for 25 years now, especially at all the Grand Slams. I enjoy being at the events, Wimbledon is a very, very special event to actually be at. Even if I didn’t do commentary, I would probably still be there.
MW: Tell us about your long association with Rolex, first as someone who has worn a Rolex Day-Date for over 40 years and then as a Testimonee.
VA: My official association with Rolex has been for about 16 years, but my real association with Rolex was winning my first watch, 40 years ago. That particular watch will always be special to me.