Anand, Vijay, Ashok, Prakash and Stephen: no less than five Amritraj have played tennis at the professional level. Story of a yellow ball passionate family between Wimbledon and Hollywood, Pancho Gonzales and James Bond, John McEnroe and Jean-Claude Van Damme, Fabrice Santoro and Sharon Stone. And many others…
When he looks back on his life from his chair of successful Hollywood producer, Ashok Amritraj, now almost sixty, probably thinks he couldn’t have contributed to write such a scenario: three brothers from Madras middle class, all became high-level tennis players, becoming the first three siblings to participate in the same edition of Wimbledon. That's what he and his older brothers accomplished in the 1970s, before leaving the stadiums for the silver screen. Not without having previously transmitted the yellow ball virus to their children. The Amritraj, or when a dynasty of tennis players goes to Hollywood.
The backbone of the family, at least in sport, is obviously Vijay, the youngest. The best of the lot, the one who touched the stars: remarkable career longevity - first professional matches in 1970, last in 1993 - 16 titles in singles, quarterfinals at Wimbledon and at the U.S. Open and several great feathers to his cap: Pancho Gonzales, Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall, Ilie Nastase, Bjorn Borg, Jimmy Connors and even John McEnroe during his fabulous 1984 season, the one the American finished with only three defeats. Vijay Amritraj also enjoyed an enduring popularity: "When I started playing, the number of black players on the tour was limited to Arthur Ashe and me, he remembers. So, every time I played, people would come and give me a note at the end of the matches. Indians who left the country to try their luck somewhere else, doctors, engineers... When I asked them why they were thanking me, they would say that their employers, after seeing me play, were proud to have an Indian in the business!"
Three Brothers at Wimbledon
Between them, and while Ramesh Krishnan was about to join them, the Amritraj brothers put India on the tennis map. Alongside Anand, his older brother, Vijay formed a formidable doubles pair. Together, they won eight titles and played the semi-finals of Wimbledon in 1976. And since Anand was also a good singles player - 74th at his best, with victories over Orantes, Gottfried and McEnroe - they contributed to bring their national team in the final of Davis Cup by BNP Paribas twice, in 1974 and 1987. "Vijay was the most gifted of all of us, says Anand. When we were younger, I could use my senior status and take over. But once we were professionals, he turned out to be the best. He was the talented one and I was the hard working one. He defeated the greatest but he could lose against players with a lower ranking than him. Quite the opposite of me. I think the reason he didn't win a Grand Slam is because he couldn’t be consistent for more than a week. But in term of talent, he was as good as Borg or Connors."
The third brother, Ashok, arrived in the world's elite in the shadow of his elders. But he wasn’t as gifted than them, despite a promising Wimbledon final in juniors in 1974. That year, all the Amritraj brothers walked the lawn of most prestigious tournament in the world, making tennis history. They repeated this family "performance", dreamed of by their grandfather a few years later: the trio of pure serve-volley played the doubles in the 1977 edition of Wimbledon (ironically, three other brothers also played Wimbledon’s doubles that year: the Brits David, John and Tony Lloyd).
Tennis is not enough
In the early 1980s, while he remained a safe bet on the ATP Tour, Vijay Amritraj showed the way once again for his brothers, but in the movies business this time. And not for any movie: for the purposes of Octopussy script, the 13th instalment of the James Bond saga, the director John Glen was looking for an Indian actor to embody a MI6 agent seconding Roger Moore himself in his mission. Vijay Amritraj jumped at the chance and applied for the role: and that's how he became snake charmer and tennis teacher at Her Majesty's Secret Service. The experience proved to be convincing enough to earn him a role in another cult franchise, the fourth instalment of Star Trek: The Voyage Home (1986) two years later. But it’s rather on television that Vijay Amritraj, now established in the United States, decided to settle, presenting a TV show called "Dimensions", in which he has, over the years, interviewed Sharon Stone, Hugh Hefner and Pierce Brosnan as well as the most famous couple of tennis: Steffi Graf and Andre Agassi.
But Vijay wasn’t the only one dreaming of the silver screen. Ashok, the youngest brother didn't quite make it on the professional tour - only four victories, but many memories with matches against Ashe and Nastase, or doubles with Rosewall - and failed to emerge from the cumbersome shadows of his older brothers: "There was a phase during which I felt like a failure. Coming after two brothers who were so successful... Fortunately it was just a phase."
Van Damme – Dudikoff vs. Prakash and Stephen Amritraj
To get out of a bad situation, nothing better than to start a new chapter, "I had this childhood dream to make a film in Hollywood. So when tennis allowed me to go to Los Angeles, I saw this as an opportunity to turn my dream into reality." Ashok Amritraj will however not be a director, but a producer. And even one of the most productive in recent years, specializing in small budget action film, with, as often as possible, a former combat sports star on the poster. In short, B movies, proper ones. At the head of his company, Hyde Park Entertainment, he produced several gems, sometimes famous, sometimes not, but always with deliciously suggestive titles: Double Impact with Jean-Claude Van Damme, Nine deaths of the ninja with Sho Kosugi, Inferno aka Operation Cobra with Don 'The Dragon' Wilson or The shooter with Michael Dudikoff. Recently, he entered the circle of people who matter and produced Nicolas Cage's Ghost rider and Robert Rodriguez's Machete.
The Amritraj family was however not done with tennis. The new millennium saw the offspring try their luck amongst the pros. But the ATP Tour had changed radically in the meantime and even though he was born in Los Angeles and had the chance to cut his teeth in the U.S. college championship, the serve-and-volley game inherited from their parents will not allow Prakash and Stephen, respectively son of Vijay and Anand, to be successful on the tour. Stephen ended his career in 2008 with a semi-final in doubles in Los Angeles for best results - the two cousins had then defeated the World 14th Sandon Stolle and the World 10th Kevin Ullyett. Prakash was a bit more successful but his prize list remained poor, especially marked by a final in singles in Newport, lost to Fabrice Santoro in 2008. He also became known for his contribution to the Indo-Pakistan friendship, playing Wimbledon’s doubles with Aisam Qureshi, Pakistan's No. 1, on the same courts where his older brothers were so often distinguished thirty years earlier. Maybe someday, Ashok will decide to produce a film about his extravagant family odyssey, and then the Amritraj will have come full circle.