From James Bond cameo to biopic on his extraordinary life: tennis legend Vijay Amritraj to serve up another smash hit

India’s first professional athlete recollects battling lung disease as a child and defying cynics and cultural barriers to become one of Asia’s most influential tennis stars

PUBLISHED : Friday, 11 May, 2018, 8:01am
UPDATED : Monday, 14 May, 2018, 10:36am

Asian tennis pioneer Vijay Amritraj beat Rod Laver, Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, Bjorn Borg and Stan Smith in his heyday, but challenging the game’s greatest players seems like a stroll when compared to the Indian’s struggles with lung disease as a boy.

“I was very ill as a child and spent a lot of time in hospital; four hours of IV every day while my mother would go sit in school, taking notes, teaching me in hospital, and begging my teachers to let me take the exams,” said the 64-year-old, in town for The Road to Wimbledon Hong Kong, a junior tournament determining the Hong Kong representatives for the finals at the All England Club’s grass courts later this year.

Doctors had encouraged young Amritraj to take up an outdoor sport to improve his breathing. By 13, he made the junior Asian tennis championships, and at just 15, he represented India in the Davis Cup. He would go on to be the country’s first professional athlete, world number 16, Asia’s number one for over a decade, and a cultural icon that transcended the sport itself.

Amritraj’s remarkable life – which includes acting alongside Roger Moore in the James Bond classic Octopussy (1983) and being appointed as a United Nations peace ambassador with Muhammad Ali – is now in the works to be adapted into a film.

Mumbai-based Cinestaan Film Company acquired the film rights in September last year with Amritraj’s son and former pro, Prakesh, taking a co-producer role. No title nor release date have been confirmed.

“It’s quite overwhelming for a company to say they want to make a movie on my life,” said Amritraj. “Tennis is actually a really little part of it; it’s more to do with parents, health, love, goals, setbacks … [working] to a point where you have the ability to represent Indians all over the world. It’s a very powerful thing to be able to do.”

And while he finds himself travelling the world telling aspiring tennis players to write down their goals and practise ball tosses before going to bed, the biopic will surely document Indian society’s struggles to take the sport seriously all those years ago.

“They would say, ‘Yes, you play tennis but what do you do for a living?’,” recalled the two-time grand slam quarter-finalist. “Growing up, every single person outside my family wrote me off – every single sport pundit in the state said, ‘Don’t waste your time, money and effort on this useless guy’.

“My mother – who had two near-fatal accidents in her thirties – started a little business to pay for my tennis because my father’s salary was not enough. She then turned me into someone who could graduate from school and college and at the same time play Davis Cup for India. I don’t think anyone can say anything is beyond the realm of possibility.”

Not to mention the cultural barriers he encountered at the start of his career.

“People didn’t know who you were and looked at you differently because they’d never seen people like you,” said Amritraj, recalling a tournament in Cincinnati in the 1970s.

“A family of four came to watch the quarter-finals; seven of the eight players looked very alike and there was one – me – that stood out.

“This family would go back the next day and [think], ‘That guy’s from India, he behaved really well, so all Indians must be the same way’.

“It reflects on India and automatically gives you responsibility to represent Indians and Asians across the world. It was something that I carried with an incredible amount of pride and I hope I never let Asia down.”

This unrelenting drive to defy the odds is what Amritraj wants to transfer to the young Hongkongers, who are spending this week learning from Great Britain Davis Cup team captain Leon Smith.

“It’s incredibly special because we never had that opportunity growing up,” said Amritraj, a youth tennis ambassador for The Road to Wimbledon and Rolex.

“Wimbledon was a distant dream that you couldn’t really touch and feel until you were good enough to walk through those gates. Now it’s at your doorstep.”

“I think especially for people from India and Asia, you have this golden opportunity to hit on the courts of Wimbledon. It cannot but energise you to be the best you can be,” said Amritraj, who hopes the winning quartet can “put Hong Kong on the map”.

“There were a lot of firsts in my time but today you can actually make sports a career. If you can influence five children today or tomorrow, then five thousand kids and families the day after, there’s nothing better that you could have done in your life.”