SHAHID JUDGE: From playing at Wimbledon to being cast in a James Bond movie (Octopussy, 1983), you have straddled many worlds.
Also, a Star Trek movie (Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, 1986). They were my two favourite movies growing up. I used to tape Star Trek when it played on television and come back to watch it. All of us grew up with Bond — my first ‘adult movie’ in India was Dr No (1962). When the producer of the film asked me to have tea with him and do a screen test, I laughed at him. Then I thought the screen test was to be done at Pinewood Studios in London, and not many can say that they worked at Pinewood in the morning and played at Wimbledon in the afternoon.
Working with Roger Moore was marvellous, but what I’m really excited about is that even Roger Federer can’t say he played centre court at Wimbledon and then went to Pinewood.
SHAHID JUDGE: What was the reaction of your peers when you went to play Wimbledon later?
Well, the movie opened a day before I played at Wimbledon (1983). Prior to Wimbledon there are qualifying rounds, where 16 guys qualify (for the championship). Then from the guys who lose, the ‘lucky losers’ are picked. The ‘lucky loser’ gets in if somebody pulls out. The whole slew of guys playing at Wimbledon were at the premiere of the film, along with a lot of guys from the qualifying rounds. There was this one guy who was the number one ‘lucky loser’ to get in. During the course of the film at Leicester Square, when the scene comes up where I die, this guy jumps up and says “I’m in! I’m in!”
SRIRAM VEERA: You once played a drag queen in a show.
Did you see that? I thought I bought all the episodes. In one of the shows I had to play this female hooker. I asked around the script-reading table, ‘Oh, it’s a funny scene. You want me to be funny?’ And the writer said, ‘No, you be straight, it will be funny. Makeup will take care of that.’ My shoot was at 6 am, and the make-up was at 2. Four hours! I didn’t recognise myself in the mirror.
In one of the scenes on location, in Los Angeles, where the ladies of the evening hang out, they stuck me with them. In the scene, the villain comes in his car and picks up one of them. He picked me. At the location, all the actors had their chairs with their names on it. I put my coat over my chair so nobody could see my name on it. Just then a whole bunch of Indians walking across on the road came up to me and said, ‘We heard that Vijay Amritraj was in this show, can we meet him?’ I said, ‘You think he’ll do something like this?’
SHAHID JUDGE: You played a lot in the US at the start of your career, at a time when travel wasn’t easy. How difficult were the early days?
I played 16 tournaments across the US and lost 15 first rounds. But we had the best time we could possibly have. Every Monday I was out and had the whole week free, with 5 dollars in my pocket. We actually left India with 3 pounds. We literally had to win in the afternoon to be able to eat at night. I was half my size then. But we had some interesting times because Anand (his brother) and I travelled together, and we had to make money somehow to eat. So I came up with a plan.
Anand was a very good chess player, a prodigy. At 7-8 years old, he was the only child in India to draw with a Russian Grand Master. He was a brilliant student, and very good at chess. I was exactly the opposite. We used to play all these small tournaments, so I thought it would be a great idea to bet with these players on money we didn’t have and take a chance on Anand winning. Anand never lost, and that’s how we ate in the night.
SHAHID JUDGE: At the US Open in 1973 you played and beat Rod Laver in five sets. Did that match mark your presence in the big league?
The interesting thing about ’73 was… When we first went to the US right after Wimbledon, there was a tournament in a small town called Bretton Woods in New Hampshire. It had one of the most spectacular hotels, Mount Washington, to which elderly white people from Florida would come in the summer. This was where the original constitution of the United States was signed. So it was a really historic place in the middle of the mountains of New Hampshire with a really spectacular skiing resort at winter time. They had this big tournament on the red clay courts, with Laver and (Jimmy) Connors.
The hotel had a dress code for dinner — coat and tie. We didn’t know that. So we were wearing Chennai shirts out and Kolhapuri chappals for dinner in the evening. People looked at us as we walked across, wondering where we had come from. Obviously, not one person there looked like us. But every day, I was winning. As the week progressed, everyone started applauding as I walked in. In the quarter-final, I beat Laver, who had three match points in the second set. In the final, I played Connors, and he had 5-3, 40-15 in the final set. There were about 8,000 people watching the match, everyone looked like they were from Florida. Of the 8,000 White Americans there, only two people were cheering for Connors — his mother and his manager. So I won 7-5 in the third, I won the tournament, and by the time I went for dinner in the evening, most of the people were trying to buy chappals to wear.
SHAHID JUDGE: Then the US Open…
It was an interesting match because 18,000 people were sitting in the stadium. It went into the fifth set. In the first or second game of the fifth set, it began to drizzle. Then the referee came out — the crowd booed him — and Laver requested that he be allowed to wear spikes; he had spikes in his bag. The referee told me, ‘Hey kid, you can wear spikes if you want.’ I said, ‘I don’t have any spikes.’ He said, ‘I can’t help you, but the match is going to go on.’ So it went on, and I kept taking out my handkerchief and wiping the bottom of my feet during the course of that match. He had a break in the fifth, but I ended up winning 6-4. The next day was the only time an Indian was on the front page of The New York Times, and not in the sports section.
ALAKA SAHANI: What made three brothers go on that trip and dominate the world of tennis, something that we have not been able to repeat so far? It all sounds like such an adventure now.
There was only one person responsible for the whole thing: my mother. The greatest talent that I ever had in my entire life was the fact that I was born to the best parents. Everything else was an accident. I was very ill as a child, I spent a lot of time in the hospital, I had a few hours of IV on me every day. I could barely get to school, it was a struggle from day one. Anand was exactly the opposite — he was brilliant. If he came second, my house was a morgue. If I passed an exam, my mother handed out sweets to everyone.
My mother didn’t want me to be left behind because Anand was doing well. And my tennis coach saw the talent in me and said he would make me India’s No 1 before he dies; he had diabetes. Mom had two near fatal accidents in her 30s. In 1964, she had a terrible burn accident — the stove fell on her, she caught fire. She was completely burned. She was in hospital for 10 months and they did skin-grafting all the time on her in those days. Four years later, when she started this business to pay for my tennis, her right hand got caught in a machine. They picked up the pieces and put the hand back together in a 10-hour surgery, and said she wouldn’t be able to write or drive or even be able to eat herself. But she did all three, and so I could play.
ALAKA SAHANI: Czech-American tennis player Martina Navratilova recently said how upset she was on being paid much less than John McEnroe for BBC television work.
This pay disparity in tennis has been an age-old thing. The entire value of a person is driven by the market. A standard example: Arnold Schwarzenegger did The Terminator. By the time he did Terminator 2 and 3, he was big, and was paid 30 million dollars. But when he did Twins he was paid 1 million dollars. That’s because he wasn’t a comedy actor. Now, Oprah Winfrey gets paid more than anyone in the world — that’s market value. When she says you need to read this book, people read that book. Julia Roberts gets paid more money to do a movie than Al Pacino. In turn, McEnroe got 150,000 pounds and Martina got 15,000 pounds. It’s entirely based on what market value one brings to the table. So that (broadcasting value) might not be the right yardstick to look at this issue.
When you come down to Wimbledon, French Open, and look at the prize money, that’s a debate worth having. Men feel that the guys are playing five sets and that they are there for four hours, and the girls are there for two hours, and so the girls should be paid less. In my opinion, three or five sets is not the difference. To me, it’s the value they bring. When Serena Williams plays Wimbledon final, the ratings are higher than when Federer plays. I didn’t realise that until it was shown to me. But tickets for Wimbledon men’s final costs 25 times more than women’s final.
So the market will drive things, but I firmly believe that equal pay has to exist in the workplace where you are doing the same job. You can’t favour either gender, or transgender, unisex… a lot of things that have come into play.
BHARAT SUNDARESAN: You use certain catch phrases in your commentary that have become quite popular. Like when someone misses a shot, you say, ‘Oh I say!’.
When I started commentary, less was more. Secondly, just as my tennis was based on Pancho Gonzales, my commentary was based on Dan Maskell (a professional tennis player who later became renowned for radio and television commentary in England). I have a cutting in my Los Angeles office of him and me, and the title of the article is, ‘Oh I say’. He used to say that a lot. He has commentated on games I have played. People loved him. He won’t say much but when he speaks, people listen. The Americans talk a lot. I always ask them whether they are paid by the word.
SRIRAM VEERA: Should sports personalities take a stand on social issues?
If you have knowledge and understanding of an issue, and you know what it takes or how wrong it was, it’s important to get your message across. All these boys and girls have tonnes and millions of followers on social media… Listen, the next two decades are our time. The time has come for us to be able to step up to the plate. We deserve a seat at the UN Security Council. I think it’s important that we speak up for it, and especially our boys and girls in cricket who kind of have such an incredible following.
BHARAT SUNDARESAN: Two years ago, just before he started campaigning, you did a 90-minute interview with Donald Trump.
I always knew he was very politically inclined. He has always been. If I’m not mistaken, our interview was the only one-on-one one-hour interview he’s ever done. So sitting him down like that, for 90 minutes, was tough on its own. But because he was a sports fanatic and had seen me playing a lot, we had a very good conversation. And no, he didn’t tweet during the interview, probably the only time he didn’t. He was able to address anything, unlike what we generally see of him on TV.
Then, of course, the whole election took a different turn. But he got to where no one expected him to get to, least of all himself. I got a feeling that he was going to run but certainly not even close to thinking that he could win. He had a great sense of personality and, in my opinion (after the interview), he also came off feeling that his first choice would have been to be a world-class athlete.
GAURAV BHATT: During last year’s coverage of Wimbledon, key matches weren’t shown — so no Vijay Amritraj and the ‘bumbling’ Boris Becker to contend with.
I’m disappointed about not doing Wimbledon right now for Star. I loved it for 27 years. And they wanted to do their own thing and go their own way and just carry the world feed like they did last year. Last year I ended up doing only the BBC (commentary). Wimbledon is iconic, but you really need to give viewers in India, however large or small they might be, that Indian touch. You can’t say, ‘He hit that ball out of the park like Babe Ruth’. It doesn’t quite work. If McEnroe wasn’t doing TV for ESPN in the US, it would be hard for them to carry the feed and then say, ‘The guy is hitting the ball like Colin Cowdrey used to do’. It doesn’t quite resonate with the Americans.
Boris is a great guy. I was the first to play doubles with him and call him ‘Boom Boom’. There’s this little piece of television that Boris did recently where they asked him about it (the ‘Boom Boom’ tag) and he mentioned that he played doubles with me at Rotterdam… I played doubles with him there because (Ion) Tiriac asked me to. I had said, ‘If I’m not making it to the singles’ semi-finals, I am going off to London’. He said do me a favour and play doubles with this guy. I ended up playing with this red-headed German kid. He looked like a tank. He was only 17. We got to the finals of the doubles in Rotterdam.
He would get very angry when the ball came back. So, he hit it harder the second time. It went ‘boom’ and then ‘boom’ again. He got really upset if it came back after that. I told him, ‘Boom boom, listen now, the ball is rising as it hits the cheap seats. It’s still rising. Kind of hold back a little bit’. And he said, ‘No, I can’t’, in that typical German accent. I called him ‘Boom Boom’ and then, three months later, in 1985, he won Wimbledon. He’s a great guy and had some great one-liners too. I said to him once, ‘Have you ever met a funny German?’ ‘Just me,’ he said. He’s a lovely, lovely guy. Sorry he had some issues recently.
BHARAT SUNDARESAN: You used McEnroe’s aggression really well… You could mess with his temperament while playing doubles.
I have a terrible sense of humour. The first time I beat him in Toronto in the Canadian Open, he wouldn’t talk to me for six months. I didn’t miss it. The second time I beat him at the ATP Championships in Cincinnati. At the press conference after the match we were sitting together in front of a pretty solid press room. He told this story that blew my mind. He said, ‘I don’t know if Vijay would remember this but when he beat Rod Laver at the US Open in 1973, I was the ball-boy at the net.’ I didn’t know what to say. I was right next to him and the journalist asked me, ‘What do you have to say?’ And I said, ‘I guess I should have hit him then. We wouldn’t have him here today.’ Only after I beat him that second time did he start respecting me as a tennis player.