When Vijay Amritraj almost became India's first Grand Slam singles semi-finalist in the Open Era
It's fair to say that India has seen its share of great players in the sport of tennis. While tales of the likes of Leander Paes (Olympic bronze medallist and 18 doubles Grand Slam titles), Mahesh Bhupathi (12 Grand Slam titles) and Sania Mirza (6 Grand Slam doubles titles) are told by many, not much is heard or spoken of India's achievements in singles tennis.
Fair enough, there hasn't been much to speak about in the singles arena as far as the big Grand Slam events are considered, but the 60s,70s and early 80s did see a few Indian male players make significant strides in those events in the singles draw.
One of those men is Vijay Amritraj, one of India's greatest tennis players, who regularly rubbed shoulders with some of the world's best tennis players and yet made his mark on the biggest stage.
In the 70s and early 80s, Amritraj made the quarter-finals of four Grand Slams, with two appearances each in the final eight at the prestigious Wimbledon and the US Open.
But never before, nor since, has any Indian singles player come as close to making a Grand Slam semi-final since the Open Era of tennis started in 1968, as Amritraj did at the 1981 Wimbledon Championships.
A tournament that had the likes of Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Ivan Lendl, Guillermo Vilas and Yannick Noah, saw Amritraj play some of his best tennis and make the tennis world take notice.
THE 'UNDERDOG' SHINES
Amritraj did not draw much attention at the start of the tournament, largely because he was unseeded. After a rather comfortable win in the first round, Amritraj had his first big test in round two.
Up against sixth seed Brian Teacher of US, Amritraj started strongly and took the first set, before the more in-form Teacher looked set to end Amritraj's campaign early as he took a two-sets-to-one lead.
The 28-year old Indian then found the mental strength that had defied him on a few similar occasions in the past and won the final two sets to move ahead.
He beat another American, Tim Wilkison, in a tough four-setter in the third round. He then drew on his hard-earned confidence and swept aside Australian Paul Kronk 6-3, 6-3, 6-2 to make the last eight.
Many heads now turned in the direction of the unseeded Indian. Not many still gave him a chance, as up next was third-seeded Jimmy Connors, the man who till date has the most singles titles in men's tennis history.
When Amritraj walked onto Wimbledon's iconic Centre Court for the quarter-final against Connors, he received great applause owing to his popularity and his performances thus far. Or maybe, the fans believed that he could get the job done against the mighty Connors.
Amritraj rode on the momentum and the Centre Court atmosphere, displaying smooth play to win the first set 6-2. Connors fought in the second set, but Amritraj was still up to the task, taking a two-sets-to-love lead.
With Amritraj a set away from a historic semi-final appearance and suddenly with everything to lose, Connors did what the great players do, making use of the pressure to stage a comeback.
Amritraj continued to fight, but Connors kept getting better as the match progressed and eventually prevailed 2-6, 5-7, 6-4, 6-3, 6-2. Both players received a huge round of applause for a great battle on tennis' biggest stage, and Amritraj certainly earned many more fans that day.
CLARITY OF THOUGHTS
On Thursday, Amritraj took to social media, posting a picture of the memorable match against Connors with the caption reading, "1981 Wimbledon QF on centre court. The amazing light moment right before the match. Nothing compares to playing 5 set singles match on the centre court late into this magical event. Connors n I have had numerous matches. Won some lost some but today we enjoy talking about those moments when we play golf! Greatest privilege representing India on the center court at Wimbledon. #tbt."
The Indian star, who did make the Wimbledon semi-finals in the doubles and has also been an active analyst and commentator at the event even after retirement as a player, was often criticised by former players and analysts for lacking the aggressiveness and so-called 'killer instinct' to get over the line against the best players in toughest of situations.
Amritraj's reply when he was asked in an interview back then about those concerns that were raised, may not have denied those claims, but certainly showed he had his priorities sorted as to the kind of player he wanted to be.
"There are two ways to look at it. One, Borg has proven that you don't have to be like that to be a winner, and secondly, if you have to be like McEnroe to be number one, then I don't want it," Amritraj said.