The legacy of Vijay Amritraj and Leander Paes, the latest Hall of Fame Inductees | Tennis News - Hindustan Times

The legacy of Vijay Amritraj and Leander Paes, the latest Hall of Fame Inductees

Dec 23, 2023 07:34 AM IST

Amritraj and Paes have been inducted into the Tennis Hall of Fame. They are the first Asian male players to be given the honour

Newport is a special place for Vijay Amritraj and Leander Paes. It was on the grass courts of the quaint American city that Amritraj lifted three of his 16 singles trophies (1976, ‘80, ‘84). It was there in 1998 that Paes won his only singles title.

The Tennis Hall of Fame ceremony will be held in July 2024.
The Tennis Hall of Fame ceremony will be held in July 2024.

Now the two Indian tennis stalwarts have been inducted into the Tennis Hall of Fame, also in Newport. Amritraj and Paes are the first Asian male players to be given the honour (Ramanathan Krishnan, India’s only Grand Slam singles semifinalist, should have been the first).

The ceremony will be held in July 2024.

This is an opportune moment to discuss the legacy of Amritraj and Paes.

It is over four decades since Amritraj’s prime, but he remains India’s best singles player along with Ramanathan Krishnan. A tall serve-and-volleyer, Amritraj was the rare Indian player with the attributes of a modern tennis pro. Asthma limited his physical fitness, however. Some commentators and fellow players also felt he lacked the obsessive drive of peers like Bjorn Borg and Jimmy Connors.

Yet, Amritraj posted solid numbers. Sixteen singles titles at the international level is not a joke. He also played a key role in taking India to two Davis Cup finals at a time when Davis Cup mattered, in 1974 and 1987.

Amritraj’s off court profile define his legacy as much as his tennis. Blessed with charm, he was the GOAT of networking. Amritraj had delightful cameos in the James Bond film ‘Octopussy’ and in ‘Star Trek’. He schmoozed with the likes of George Bush and became a UN Ambassador. In his playing days, a touch of 70s hedonism was never far away. When Amritraj won the 1973 Volvo International, a Playboy Playmate presented him keys to a shiny Volvo car.

In the 1980s, Vijay started the Brittania Amritraj Tennis Academy, the first of its kind in India. It produced Paes, among others.

Paes had explosive athleticism, big stage temperament and the warrior spirit, uncommon traits for an Indian athlete of the 1990s.

Hustling chip-and-charge, volleys crisp enough to be served in a Pringles box, exuberant celebrations – remember the chestbumps with doubles partner Mahesh Bhupathi? – was the Paes experience.

Paes focussed on doubles in his later years, and the 1999 Wimbledon title he and Bhupathi won is one of the highlights of Indian sports.

It was through singles, however, that Paes blazed onto the scene. He was the world’s No.1 junior, winning Wimbledon and US Open in that category. He quickly transitioned into a Davis Cup hero, beating big name players like Goran Ivanisevic, Novak Djokovic’s coach. In 1996, he ended India’s 44-year Olympic individual medal drought by winning the bronze in Atlanta.

Amritraj and Paes had their flaws. During Davis Cup, Amritraj would insist his brother Anand played on the team, even if the latter was not in his best form. Paes’ endless disputes with Bhupathi and divisive personality often compromised his well-being and that of Indian tennis.

There is no doubt, however, that Amritraj and Paes deserve to be on the honours board in Newport.

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