On the 12th day of a training camp in Shillong, Meghalaya, shortly after he had turned 13, Vijay Amritraj felt the watchful gaze of national coach Akhtar Ali intensify. That was the start of a long-lasting bond between the veteran Indian coach, and a teenager who would go on to become the biggest singles player to emerge from the country in the Open Era.
“He always felt that I would end up becoming one of the best to come out of the country,” Amritraj tells The Indian Express over the phone.
“That camp in Shillong was the first time I met him. As much as I had problems with my health, he always had confidence in the fact that I would be one of our best players. He felt that. He knew that. His service to Indian tennis was quite special. He had committed himself completely to the growth of tennis in the country.
“This is a great loss to Indian tennis.”
Ali, 81, who had been suffering from various ailments for the past few months, passed away in the early hours of Sunday in Kolkata. The news swept across the Indian tennis fraternity as tributes started pouring in.
Amritraj himself took to Twitter to write: “Aktar Ali was terrific as a coach both when I was a junior as well as coach of our India Davis Cup team. Always pushed hard n kept the team relaxed. He did great service to Indian Tennis. RIP dear Aktar (sic).”
Aktar Ali was terrific as a coach both when I was a junior as well as coach of our India Davis Cup team. Always pushed hard n kept the team relaxed. He did great service to Indian Tennis. RIP dear Aktar. Sincere condolences to Zeeshan n his lovely family.
— Vijay Amritraj (@Vijay_Amritraj) February 7, 2021
But 280 characters of a tweet would never be enough to describe a man who gave his best for the sport in India for seven decades.
Ali first stepped into the limelight when he reached the junior boys’ Wimbledon Championships semi-final in 1955 and went on to win the senior national title that same year. It wasn’t long before he earned his way into the Davis Cup team and played eight ties till his final appearance in the competition in 1964.
His last professional match, as recorded by the ATP website, happened to be a straight-sets loss to Amritraj on a clay court in Bombay, in 1974.
That single match-win for Amritraj was the least that Ali had given him. In Ali — just like Anand Amritraj, Ramesh Krishnan and Leander Paes — Vijay Amritraj found a mentor ready to push the youngster further up the tennis ladder.
“He was the coach when I was a junior at various coaching camps, he was pretty much a staple presence in Indian tennis throughout the 1970s and 1980s,” Amritraj says.
“A lot of the work we went through during the Davis Cup was very special. In my early years in the Davis Cup team when Ramanathan Krishnan was captain and (Akhtar) was coach at the time, we had a strong push as a team and he was extremely good at pushing the players to work hard. At the same time, he’d keep the team quite relaxed with jokes, his stories and anecdotes. It just kept us very relaxed and that’s how we punched above our weight.
He was always a very light-hearted and fun person to talk tennis to. Trivia, things from the past, fun stuff. And not just when we were players, but post our careers too.”
Bengal has lost a tennis legend today. Fondly remembering the ever smiling face of Akhtar Da during our long association at Calcutta South Club. A stalwart coach, he inspired multiple generations. His demise is a great loss for Indian tennis. May he rest in peace. #AkhtarAli pic.twitter.com/ikk77fuGiB
— Jay Prakash Majumdar (@jay_majumdar) February 7, 2021
Ali passed on his experience as a Davis Cup coach and national coach to his son Zeeshan. Like his father, Zeeshan too was a national champion, played for India in the Davis Cup, is the Davis Cup coach and was recently appointed head coach of the National Tennis Centre in New Delhi.
There’s a long list of players from India who have been impacted by Ali’s teachings, Including Sania Mirza and Somdev Devvarman. The latter, who would become one of the fittest players the country has produced, tweeted: “One of the first times I threw up during practice was with Akhtar sir at the South Club in the summer of 1999. He always gave it his best and taught us to do the same. RIP Akhtar Ali, legend of Indian tennis.”
In terms of singles-play, Amritraj’s World No 18 mark is yet to be breached by an Indian. And till date that was something Ali was proud of.
“Whenever people tell him about me, saying that ‘I knew (Vijay) would always be this good’ and so on and so forth, he’d be very proud of it. But then he’d say, ‘I knew it from the 12th day in Shillong’,” Amritraj concludes.