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Somdev looking to stamp his mark
Vijay and Anand Amritraj not only played in the golden era of tennis, but were also the champions of India's most successful generation. They led India to two Davis Cup finals -- 1974 and 1987 -- and the elder of the two Amritraj brothers, Anand, believes they could have won at least one of them.
In 1974, India forfeited the final against South Africa due to the apartheid rule in the African country.
"Exactly 20 years ago we made the Davis Cup final against Sweden," says the 55-year-old Anand Amritraj. "Vijay and I are planning to throw a party on the occasion of the 20th anniversary because we don't think we are ever going to see that happen again in our lifetime."
Flashy off the court and ruthless in his analysis, Anand is sad about the rut Indian tennis finds itself in.
In a freewheeling chat with Deepti Patwardhan, he speaks about the rivalry with brother Vijay and the changes tennis has seen since his heyday in the game.
How was the sibling rivalry between you and Vijay?
I am the older of the two, so I used to beat him often earlier. But once in the ATP, he was a better player. We played against each other once in Ohio, where he won in the third set. Clearly, Vijay was the more talented one; I was the more hard-working.
He somehow played very well and beat all the great players of his generation but struggled against the lesser players. It was the opposite with me.
He was a part of the ABC of tennis..
Yeah, but B (Bjorn Borg) and C (Jimmy Connors) won multiple Grand Slams; A hasn't won any. Vijay has beaten Borg, Connors and McEnroe many times. He was as good, or even better than Borg and Connors.
I think the reason he didn't win a Grand Slam was that he was unable to put it together over a period of one week. Even as a team, we won 28 ATP titles, reached the final of the Grand Slam, but for some reason was not able to win it. There were some great doubles teams in our era and we were in the top-5 for almost 15 years.
So, sometimes, when we look back, never having won a Slam is a bit of a disappointment.
How does it feel going back on court and playing with your old rivals at the legends events?
It is nostalgic. When we played against (Ilie) Nastase this year at Wimbledon... the stands were full. People still love to watch us, and the older generation can relate to our game a lot better because the ball is not hit at 150 mph. I do get along with Nastase now and tolerate McEnroe.
A lot of them still come and tell us that they miss us, and the colourful players like Nastase, McEnroe and Connors. These players were fun watching, though they did tend to cross the limit at times.
Is the locker room atmosphere more competitive now?
No, I don't think so. In fact, I am surprised they get along so well. In our times, there were players, even Indians, we could not stand. But now I see all the players travel together and help each other out; its great!
What is the competition like in men's tennis now, compared to your generation? How difficult do you think it is for Prakash and Stephen Amritraj to break into the top league?
There are a lot more players on the tour now. When we played, there were 600 players on the ATP computer, now there are 1600. So players like Stephen and Prakash now have 1000 more guys to compete with.
All the players are trying to break into the top-100, that's where the money is. Though the quality of players is not as different, there are a lot many players to deal with. You have to be at your best every time you step on court.
And the constant touring is taking a toll on the players' bodies... .
I am actually shocked at the number of injuries to players nowadays, considering the matches are a lot shorter now. There was no tie-break during our time and still we went relatively injury-free for 20 years.
Apart from playing more matches, the cement courts are hard on the body. The tennis balls are also heavier and points are longer -- players prefer playing from the baseline rather coming to the net and cutting the point short. Playing side-to-side all the time is very hard on the body.
How much has the change in racquets brought about that change?
The lighter composite racquets has definitely helped the baseliner. It adds power to the shot.
And today the players can also return better, with more strength. Earlier if you hit a good, fast serve you could come to the net but it rarely happens now. Improving racquet technology is supposed to make the game better, but I don't see that happening.
There are hardly any touch players remaining; there were a few like (Tim) Henman and Greg Rusedski [Images]. The whole game has changed.
What do you think of India's disappointing run in the Davis Cup recently?
It is very depressing. We reached the Davis Cup finals twice and were constantly in the World Group.
Today we are struggling to keep our place in Group I of the Asia-Oceania zone. Among the eight teams, we are second or third from bottom. There was a time when we used to rule Asia, but the other countries have raced ahead and we are finding it difficult to catch up with them.
This year we also lost to Uzbekistan; thankfully, we won against the Kazhaks, otherwise that would have been a disaster. We need a singles player who is in the top-100, top-50 consistently or else it's going to be pretty much impossible.
There are distinctly two camps in the (Davis Cup) team and that is definitely showing in the performance and it's not a great atmosphere for the juniors. We had heard about what happened in Doha a lot earlier in Los Angeles.
The captain has lost confidence in some of the players.
The Asian Tennis Federation says that the Futures and Challenger events are concentrated in Europe and hence it's been difficult for Indian players to break into the top league. Do you agree with that?
I am surprised to hear that. India certainly has a lot of Challenger and Futures. And even then these tournaments can only get you to a certain level -- top-300 maybe. But to break into the top-100 you have to play enough, play consistently in the ATPs because that's where the chunk of points is.
I don't know why but the Indian players -- be it (Rohan) Bopanna or Prakash -- haven't been able to break the top-200 barrier. They have the serve, the big shots, maybe they lack the mental strength to play at that level.
Photograph: Deepti Patwardhan
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