I wasn’t to realize it when, in 1990, I first arrived in India, but it was to be the start of a long love affair with the country and its people.
Years earlier as a junior player competing on the New Zealand Junior Tennis Circuit I stayed at a house in Wellington that had just installed colour TV.
Now that doesn’t mean much to younger people today but back in 1975 some lucky homes in New Zealand were just starting to replace their black and white models with new colour TV’s! It was just fascinating to watch all your favourite programs in colour. Oddly enough one of the best programs to view in colour at the time was Sesame Street. “Big Bird” was yellow!
During my stay in Wellington, New Zealand was also playing Davis Cup against India and the Amritraj brothers, Vijay and Anand were doing their best to beat the New Zealand team of Onny Parun and Brian Fairlie on the grass courts at Stanley Street, Auckland.
It was really special for me to watch the dark ebony Amritraj brothers move about on a perfectly manicured grass court. On top of that, players back then were just beginning to wear some colour in their tennis outfits, especially shirt collars and short pockets.
This was very glamorous stuff at the time and when I arrived in India to start work at the Britannia Amritraj Tennis Scheme some 16 years later, actually meeting the Amritraj family personally was very significant to me.
My first contact was meeting the family patriarch, Robert Amritraj at Madras airport. Once I cleared immigration I made my way out to the family car and sat with Robert waiting on Vijay to arrive on a later flight from LA. It was evident that the Amritraj family was no normal Indian family as we seemed to be sitting in the only Mercedes Benz at the airport, if not the state of Tamil Nadu.
I actually traveled back to the “BAT” apartment alone. As I was to learn very quickly, not all men are created equal in India and protocol demanded that I travel in the BAT van. Although I sometimes got to ride in the family Mercedes, it didn't happen that often!
After washing up and checking our new home out my colleague Rob Smith and I were summoned to the Amritraj house located next to a cemetery and on busy Sterling Road.
The house is a curious arrangement as it has been divided in to two parts, the top half, where the Amritraj family lives and the bottom half, where Mrs. Amritraj’s sister lives. Both are elderly women but seemingly haven’t spoken to each other for so many years no one is sure just how long it’s been. There must have been a lot of bad blood between them as Maggie Amritraj never mentioned her sister nor acknowledged that she existed, even though she was living directly above her!
The highlight on that first day for me was being welcomed inside the Amritraj living room and sitting amongst all the trophy cabinets and tennis memorabilia.
The room is circular and spacious but it was being in the company of Vijay that was special to me. Here was that guy on the TV who had captured my attention all those years ago. I was now actually in his childhood home chatting with him while stealing glances at the tennis history around the walls.
Maybe my decision to leave New Zealand and try coaching tennis overseas wasn’t such a goofy idea. If I didn’t last very long at this new adventure at least I had met Vijay Amritraj and had been a guest in his living room.
Working overseas was already looking like a good idea.