FATHER AND SON: Prakash interviews Vijay after dad receives special honor

It wasn't just enough that Vijay Amritraj posted consistent enough results to be a Top 30 mainstay for much of his career, rising as high as 18 in the world in 1980.

The more vexing dimension for Amritraj’s opponents was that he was a vivid personification of a term that fills competitors and tournament directors with dread: dangerous floater.

This was a man who lived for the big occasion. As a teenager, in the summer of 1973, Amritraj had rallied from match point down versus both Rod Laver and Jimmy Connors to win a North American clay court title. A month later, he’d beaten the mighty Rocket at the US Open in a dramatic five-setter. The next year, a similar epic win, this time over rising star Bjorn Borg.

By the time he was 27 years old, Amritraj had earned wins over just about all of the titans of his time—Laver, Connors, Borg, John Newcombe, Ilie Nastase, Stan Smith.

Then there was John McEnroe. Beginning with a 6-0, 6-3 win in Rotterdam in 1979, McEnroe beat Amritraj the first nine times they played one another. Only twice had Amritraj even won a set. “Probing for weaknesses against McEnroe was a futile exercise,” Amritraj wrote years later in his autobiography. “The guy didn’t have any. No matter where you tried to put the ball, you couldn’t hurt him – or that, at least, was how it seemed at the outset.”


A portrait of Amritraj from November 1984.

A portrait of Amritraj from November 1984.

Finally, in the summer of 1981, at an ATP stop in Montreal, Amritraj earned his first victory over McEnroe, rallying from match point down to win, 5-7, 7-6 (5), 6-1. Amritraj’s secret weapon for this effort had been Australian legend Roy Emerson. The night before the match, the two spoke on the phone, Emerson offering two tactical suggestions. One was to come to net on second serve returns, regardless of how well McEnroe served. The second was to serve frequently to McEnroe’s forehand, knowing that versus a serve-volleyer like Amritraj, the return would just about always go crosscourt to Amritraj’s backhand volley. Armed with this knowledge, Amritraj had earned a breakthrough triumph.

Three years later, McEnroe was in the middle of one of the most dominant years in tennis history. Arriving in Cincinnati, McEnroe’s record was 59-1. Earlier that summer, he’d played the best match of his career, easily beating Connors in the final of Wimbledon. Meanwhile, Amritraj had lost three of his last five matches and was ranked 70 in the world.

Once again, McEnroe won a tight first set, taking it in a tiebreaker, 8-6. And once again, Amritraj fought back, taking the next two sets even more emphatically than he had in Montreal, 6-2, 6-3. ''I can't take anything away from him,'' McEnroe said. ''He played very well. I was surprised at how well he played, particularly on his serve.'' Amritraj served seven aces.

“This brought back memories of when I was 19 years old, playing Rod Laver at the US Open in 1973,” said Amritraj. “After 11 years, there is still a little bit left.”