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At home on every turf

Tennis legend Vijay Amritraj continues to scale new peaks in diverse fields. He tries to make a difference to people's lives as a U.N. Messenger of Peace

Ever ready to serve: Vijay Amritraj at his Nungambakkam residence — Pics. by Vino John

AS A sick and pale 10-year-old, he wanted to save lives by becoming a doctor. At that time, he believed that was the best and the only thing to do. His path and focus, however, shifted to tennis. Now 40 years later, Vijay Amritraj, a legendary figure in tennis and India's pride, is reliving his dreams albeit in a different manner as a U.N. Messenger of Peace. "For me it was not only an honour but also an opportunity to make a difference if possible in various corners of the world. `Trying to make a difference', that's why the U.N. means so much to me," says Vijay, relaxing at his residence in Nungambakkam, after a United Nations assignment in Bosnia.

Managing First Serve Entertainment (FSE), being a commentator for Fox Sports and Star Sports on golf and tennis and shuttling between two homes — Chennai (where he was brought up) and Los Angeles (where he stays with wife Shyamala and youngest son Vikram), Vijay Amritraj is more occupied than he was during his playing days. "It's not easy (travelling regularly). In fact it is very difficult. But I'm very fortunate that my wife is able to travel with me whenever possible. Eighty per cent of the time she cannot because Vikram is in school. But I ensure that 20 days a month I'm in LA."

Having led India to two Davis Cup finals (1974 and 87), reaching the Wimbledon quarterfinals in 1973 and 1981, being ranked 16 in the world, beating legends such as Rod Laver, Bjorn Borg, Jimmy Connors and Ivan Lendl and having received numerous laurels and awards, Vijay continues to scale new peaks in diverse fields.

Witty comments

Post-playing days, Vijay received an offer from Prime Sports (now Star Sports) in 1991 for commentating on the U.S. Open. His friendly demeanour and Public Relations skills coupled with his natural flair for English and in-depth knowledge of the sport made Vijay a natural in the television medium. He makes Wimbledon compulsive viewing with his witty and wise comments. Not to mention his chatty studio interviews with current and former players at SW19.

"First Serve Entertainment, a sports and entertainment company, is in Chetput," he says. "I don't want it to grow out of control as I am not here full time. FSE is very important to me as it makes me feel that I can achieve something in other walks of life if I so desire. This is for my personal satisfaction. We have a fully audio-video facility (digital). My dad is the managing director."

If Vijay has reached such heights, then "90 per cent credit" should go to his parents Robert and Maggie Amritraj, especially his mother Maggie, a tennis player herself. She has been the guiding force behind Vijay. Suffering from breathing problems (cystic fibrosis) at 10, Vijay used to be so weak that "I'd run for 10 yards and then sit down for 10 minutes." Tennis made him overcome all these problems.

"Right through my tennis career, I've always said what I am today is because 90 per cent of the effort is theirs and 10 per cent mine. And that's the truth. My mother made me very strong. She taught us to accept challenges head on, that failure breeds success and determination is the key." Vijay is close to his parents so much so that whenever he finds time he makes it a point to visit the Nungambakkam residence, situated opposite Loyola College where all the three — Anand, Vijay and Ashok — did their graduation.

Vijay keeps mentioning how blessed he has been to achieve something in life, considering his poor health early on.

He has never forgotten those days when a few critics wrote him off as a player. "If I look back on my life, I wouldn't have changed even one thing. Not many people can say that. I've been very fortunate. My whole career has been unimaginable, especially as an Indian."

Vijay, the charming 50-year-old, is all rolled into one: a thorough public speaker, a diplomat nonpareil, and a smart multi-media entrepreneur. "Tennis gave me my greatest education. It taught me about people, about cultures. I am able to understand how people think. I feel comfortable wherever I go," he reasons.

Seldom do people who come in touch with him go untouched by his friendliness and warmth.

A blessed family

Pillars of inspiration: Vijay with parents Robert and Maggie Amritraj

AT 73, Maggie Amritraj is a towering presence in the 56-year-old bungalow built by her father J. Dhairyam. Maggie continues to be an inspiring presence to her sons — Anand, Vijay and Ashok. Despite a burn accident in 1964 and a severe injury to her right hand in 1968, Maggie refused to bow to the dictates of fate and instead scripted her life the way she wanted it, guiding her sons on the path of glory. Maggie was also the driving force behind the Britannia Amritraj Tennis Scheme, which was wound up in 2003. Says Vijay: "The drive they have is amazing. We feel very miniscule in front of them." Seeing her sons reach the acme in their professions, Maggie is now a contented mother. "All the three sons are excellent but Vijay is special. He is very affectionate and comes to see us every month," she says.

Vijay's father Robert Amritraj at 83 is very active, running the house and managing the First Serve Entertainment Office in the city. A Railway employee for 34 years, Robert spent his earnings just to see his sons come up. "People say we are lucky, but we worked hard and now we're reaping the benefits, says Robert. "We are a blessed family."


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