Calcutta: Vijay Amritraj, the flamboyant face of Indian tennis for years, spoke to The Telegraph from Los Angeles on Saturday.
Earlier in the week, Vijay launched the Champions Tennis League (CTL), which will be played in six cities across the country.
Q What has encouraged you to launch the CTL at this point in time?
A I’d been wanting to do this for about four years now... The timing, I think, is right and I’m thankful to the All India Tennis Association for support. Back in the 1970s, I played in a similar format across the US. That was in the World Team Tennis. To make the CTL palatable for India, I’ve just tweaked it a bit.
Is the idea largely to bring international tennis across India?
Absolutely. India only has the Chennai Open as a top-rung tournament and, obviously, it’s limited to one city.
Cricket’s IPL seems to have inspired a whole range of sport...
The IPL is very big... For any venture to be successful, the economics have to fit. Owners could be driven by passion for the first couple of years, but what after that? Passion is a wonderful thing, but it doesn’t drive you forever.
But in a tight market, is there actually space for the CTL?
There is enough interest, for sure. Every sport has a niche market. It’s about getting the economics right. That’s the bottom line.
You’re in “final negotiations” for franchises in four cities (Bangalore, Chandigarh, Mumbai and New Delhi) and are looking at two of the following four — Calcutta, Chennai, Hyderabad and Pune... Will you elaborate?
(Laughs) We’ll have a clear picture by the end of the month... Of cities No.5 and No.6, I’m looking more closely at Calcutta and Chennai. We’ve played some of our best Davis Cup matches in Calcutta and Chennai is, well, where my roots are. Both cities remain the home of Indian tennis.
The CTL is going to be a compressed affair...
It will start on November 17 and end on the 26th, 10 days, that’s it.
So, there won’t be a clash with Mahesh Bhupathi’s ITPL...
No, Mahesh’s event begins on November 28. In fact, we’ll be complementing what he intends doing... He’s promoting tennis across four cities (Dubai, Manila, Mumbai, Singapore) in Asia, we’re going to do it at a domestic level. But with a strong international flavour.
An “international legend” will captain each of the six teams. Who qualifies as one?
The legends won’t be of my age (60)! Someone who has won a Grand Slam or made the final of a Grand Slam qualifies as a legend... We’re looking at the likes of Michael Stich, Goran Ivanisevic, Carlos Moya and Mark Philippoussis... They’re between 37 and 45.
Each team will also have a men’s player ranked between No. 5-25 and a women’s player in the same ‘league’...
Yes... And, please don’t forget the two juniors who’ll be around to gain experience. Each team will feature a male player from India as well.
Some questions on tennis in general...
Is the quality of the game better now than it was in the 1970s and the 1980s?
It’s fair to say that the competition has increased... As for the skill level, the greats don’t belong to any one era only. A great remains a great.
The other day, Roger Federer suggested that the top-4 in men’s tennis weren’t exactly threatened by the rest of the field. Your thoughts?
I wouldn’t agree... The gap has narrowed significantly and the ones outside the top-10 are very tough mentally. They believe they can topple anybody ranked higher.
What has brought about this belief?
When one person does it, then the confidence of the rest gets lifted... Stanislas Wawrinka was in the top-10 (eighth, really) when he upset Rafael Nadal in the final of this year’s Australian Open, but that result changed a few things... Federer lost to Ernests Gulbis in the French Open and Nadal lost to a wild card, Nick Kyrgios, in Wimbledon.
Are today’s players, then, more professional as well?
Well, the top players only concentrate on the singles and look to extend their careers.
Just how much petrol does Federer have left in his tank?
(Laughs) Federer will go when he feels the time is right... He hasn’t done a Bjorn Borg, who quit when as young as 26... I expect to see Federer in Wimbledon in 2015 too.
[Winner of 17 Grand Slam titles, Federer is 32... Borg, by the way, did attempt a comeback. He wasn’t successful.]
This year’s Wimbledon final, involving Novak Djokovic and Federer, got hailed as an epic. Would you agree?
The last two sets produced epic tennis, yes, not the entire final. The Federer-Nadal finals have been epic-like, as also the Federer-Andy Roddick final, in 2009.
What goes into the making of champions like Federer?
It all comes down to the pursuit of excellence... Just how much are you willing to sacrifice... Just how much are you willing to push yourself. Federer has gone to the limits and is still hungry.
Your take on Djokovic and Federer getting Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg, respectively, on board as coaches...
You know, what surprises me is that this didn’t happen years ago... Somebody who has gone through it all is best equipped to prepare somebody getting ready to face the same situation. He has that ‘been-there-done-that’ advantage, which could make a huge difference... There were occasions when I was approached, but I didn’t feel up to it.
The final one... What’s the update on the Foundation which bears your name?
It’s US-based and we do quite a few fund-raisers... The Vijay Amritraj Foundation supports 19 charities in India... Ninety-five per cent of them work with women and children... Old age homes are covered by the rest. It’s my way of doing something for society back in India.