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India turns to a Californian to regain Davis Cup prestige

Anand Amritraj, who was born in Madras but lives in Calabasas, has the task of restoring a legacy that reached the 1974 Davis Cup final before a boycott cut short the ride.

October 04, 2013|Bill Dwyre
  • Anand Amritraj prepares to serves as his brother, Vijay, waits at the net during a Wimbledon doubles match.
Anand Amritraj prepares to serves as his brother, Vijay, waits at the net… (Daniel Berehulak / Getty…)

Here's a twist for tennis fans: The road to Davis Cup glory for India now goes through Calabasas.

On Sept. 21, in a country where tennis plays second fiddle only to cricket, India's tennis federation announced a surprising departure from its traditional ways. Its new Davis Cup captain would be an American resident.

"The first question they asked me," says Anand Amritraj of Calabasas, "is if I still had my India passport. The U.S. allows dual citizenship, but India does not. I have always traveled on my India passport. I go back there four times a year. My mother still lives there.

"Had I not had that India passport, it was no deal."

The first word of congratulations came from his brother, Vijay. Soon came word from his other brother, Ashok. Neither message traveled far. All three, born and raised in Madras (now Chennai), India, live in the San Fernando Valley and have since 1978.

If the Amritraj name is familiar, think back to the 1976 Wimbledon doubles competition, in which brothers Anand and Vijay got to the semifinals.

Or, if you are a tennis aficionado, you may recall the 1974 Davis Cup final, India versus South Africa. Anand and Vijay Amritraj were the top players on India's team, playing almost all the singles and doubles matches. They say they were favored. One member of that South African team, Ray Moore, the current chief executive of the Indian Wells tennis tournament, has always maintained his team would have won.

We will never know.

In a controversial blending of sports and politics, a la the U.S. boycott of the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, India's government, reportedly Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, ruled its team would boycott the final. It became a forfeit that was meant to, and did, call worldwide attention to South Africa's apartheid policies.

"It was a bad move," Anand Amritraj says now. "The best thing would have been for us to play them and beat them."

Anand, 61, Vijay, who will turn 60 in December, and Ashok, 57, all started tennis very young, with nudges from their parents, Robert and Maggie. Robert died last December at 91. Maggie is 86.

All three brothers excelled on an international level. Vijay got as high as No. 16 in the world in singles in 1980. Anand, more of a doubles specialist, says that, of the 27 pro doubles titles he won, 15 were with Vijay.

Ashok got as far as the Wimbledon junior singles final in 1974, losing to current UCLA coach Billy Martin. In the years since, Ashok has become a Hollywood producer whose films include "Double Impact" and, more recently, "Bringing Down the House," with Steve Martin and Queen Latifah.

Now, tennis has put at least one of the Amritraj brothers back in the sports spotlight in India.

"Davis Cup has been a big deal in India's press," Anand says.

That's because this year all but one of India's Davis Cup players, 40-year-old star Leander Paes, boycotted a match to protest their treatment and conditions. They demanded the dismissal of Captain S.P. Misra. According to Anand, they also asked for him to take over.

The players who had boycotted in protest of their coach returned to India's team later and won their next match to remain in contention for a spot in the Davis Cup's World Group, the top 16 international teams. To get there, India will have to win three matches next year. That is Captain Anand's mandate.

The first hurdle is a match, which begins Jan. 31 in India, against Taiwan. A victory would set up a match against South Korea in South Korea. A victory therewould advance India to a match against one of the current World Group first-round losers. Then, a victory would lift India to a spot in the top 16 in 2015.

"This has been an ambition for me, a real goal," Anand says.

It's not as if he hasn't put in the time.

He played his first Davis Cup match in 1968, at age 16. He played his last one in 1988, at age 36. He played 62 Davis Cup matches, had a 21-14 record in doubles and was 32-30 overall. Now it is 25 years later, and he is back to run the show.

"I guess it is kind of a silver anniversary thing," he says.

If he succeeds, we can only hope for a headline in the Mumbai Mirror.

"Valley Boy Makes Good."

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