Davis Cup in the 70s meant that the Amritraj family would attend the ties. Rather, they would suffer through it. Anand Amritraj remembers his mother holding a rosary whenever India played while his father would circle the stadium. “He couldn’t sit and watch. He’d take rounds of the stadium listening to the crowd. Every time people would cheer, he knew we won a point. If there was silence, we’d lost a point,” he recalls. “That happened for every Davis Cup match. Not so much during the regular tour matches,” he adds, laughing.
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It was the same thing the last time Pune hosted a tie, 43 years ago. Rewind to 1974. Anand Amritraj was a 22-year-old looking for a permanent break in the Davis Cup team. India were 2-1 up in the Davis Cup semi-final against the USSR at Pune’s Deccan Gymkhana, a win would take them through to the final.
But Amritraj had never beaten an opponent from a big tennis-playing nation in the Davis Cup before. In the fourth rubber, he was trailing Teimuraz Kakulia 2-1 after three sets. “My parents were there. My brother Vijay was there. They were all nervous wrecks. It was do-or-die because they knew that if I lost this match, Vijay would have to play (Alex) Metreveli in the fifth rubber, which he probably wouldn’t have won,” Amritraj says.
It would not come down to that. Amritraj slogged it out till five sets, at a time when the tiebreaker rule didn’t exist, to win 6-2, 8-10, 4-6, 6-3, 6-3, in front of 12,000 fans seated on wooden stands. “It was absolute chaos.”
First big win
It was Amritraj’s first ever singles win against a big team – a victory that announced him on the world stage and a permanent fixture on the Indian Davis Cup team. “A year before, I won against Pakistan and the team captain Ramanathan Krishnan was convinced that he had found a second singles player. But after Russia, my place on the team was cemented,” he recalls.
The win took India to its second Davis Cup final and propelled the former world number 74 to becoming one of the core members of the Davis Cup team. He went on to play in 39 ties. The association would continue even after he retired in 1988.
In 2013 he was appointed non-playing captain of the team. And now, as Pune hosts its first Davis Cup tie since 1974, Amritraj remembers his first major win. “You don’t realise the magnitude of what you did at that point because you think it’s going to happen again. Only now you look back and say, ‘oh my God, that was great.’”
Amritraj played his own part to relive that memory. Three years ago he travelled to the Deccan Gymkhana to visit the courts where he won the tie that set him up onto the big stage. “They don’t have the grass courts anymore. It’s a running track now,” he smiles.
He’s back again. But it’s a cruel coincidence that while the USSR tie established his career, the upcoming one against New Zealand will be his last, in any capacity, with the Davis Cup team. “It came to an end quicker than I thought. It’s not what I wanted, nor what the players wanted. So it’s kind of bittersweet that the last time is in Pune.”
The AITA decided against renewing Amritraj’s contract as captain, instead giving the honours to Mahesh Bhupathi after the New Zealand tie. In Pune, the city where he once announced himself to the world, the veteran will bow out. Amritraj’s Davis Cup career has come a full-circle.
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