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Interview with Vijay Amritraj; First Woman to Win a WTA Title; Interview with an Indian Tennis Family

Aired February 23, 2012 - 05:30   ET


PAT CASH, CNN HOST: Hello and welcome to OPEN COURT.

Amidst all the excitement of Victoria Azarenka and Novak Djokovic's heroic Australian Open wins, you might have overlooked the latest grand slam win by India's Leander Paes in the men's doubles.

Well, this months, we thought we'd hand the reins to my good mate, Leander, to present OPEN COURT'S Focus on India.

Take it away, Lee.

LEANDER PAES, 13-TIME GRAND SLAM DOUBLES CHAMPION: Pat Cash has had a chance to show you off Australia. Well, it's my turn to show you my home turf. Welcome to Chennai. cricket might be the number one sport in India, but when it comes to tennis, Chennai is where it's at. Chennai is the home to the only ATP event in Southeast Asia and the biggest Indian tennis families, the Krishnans and the Amritrajes, come from here. I grew up in Kolkata and trained in Chennai and that helped me to go on to win 13 grand slam doubles titles.

Coming up on the show -- (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SANIA MIRZA, INDIA'S NUMBER 1 WOMEN'S PLAYER: When we used to say that one day I want to play woman and was be treated like a Jew.

PAES (voice-over): India's best woman's tennis player stands up to her opponents and our questions.

(on camera): That is very pretty.

(voice-over): Dressed to thrill, the current prince of Indian tennis turns heads on and off the court.



VIJAY AMRITRAJ, INDIAN TENNIS LEGEND: My name is Amritraj, Vijay Amritraj.


PAES: The most famous names in Indian tennis tell us why a country of a billion souls has never produced a singles grand slam winner.

This is Marina Beach, one of the best known beaches in India. This was the beach where I did a lot of my running once, a lot of my training. And the one man who gave me a big opportunity, him and his family, to be the man I am today, Vijay Amritraj.

Welcome, Vig. AMRITRAJ: Really good to see you.

How are you?

PAES: I've been great, thanks.

Thank you so much for being with us this morning.

AMRITRAJ: This is an old haunt for us.

PAES: This is.

AMRITRAJ: It's an old haunt for us. It brings back great memories to -- to be out here, isn't it?

PAES: Vijay, Anand and Ashok Amritraj were the only three brothers in the family to play top tennis in the 1970s.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The serve (INAUDIBLE). They're the Amritraj brothers, still getting every point, all they've got.

PAES: Vijay and Anand went on to guide India to two Davis Cup finals in 1974 and 1987.

(on camera): The history that your family has in Indian tennis is phenomenal.

What made it so unique, the three brothers together?

AMRITRAJ: I think at that time, you know, sport really was not a vocation. You know, it was not part of the curriculum. It was not part of a, you know, it was not high in social status. It wasn't big on making money. It wasn't a commercial venture and so -- so people used to always say to us, OK, you play tennis, but what do you do for a living?


AMRITRAJ: Hopefully, we answered that question a little bit later on. But my late grandmother used to always say to me, you know, why do you have to go so far to lose?

You can do it here.

Why do you have to go so far?

PAES (voice-over): Vijay's popularity on court led to a short but notable acting career with roles as a starship captain in the "Star Trek" movie, "The Voyage Home."


AMRITRAJ: Deploy and make shifts all our sails.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Vijay, we have company.


PAES: And as an agent in the James Bond film, "Octopussy," where he used all his tennis skills to help 007 escape in a motorized rickshaw.


AMRITRAJ: My name is Amritraj, Vijay Amritraj.


PAES: Toward the end of Vijay's tennis career, Vijay and his family set up the Britannia Amritraj Tennis Academy, which supported a group of eight talented kids each year to help them become professional tennis players. I joined this program when I was 12 years old.

(on camera): What was your vision behind it at that time?

AMRITRAJ: I thought the most important thing is let's set up something that is quite specific and quite exclusive, but with one goal in mind, and that is to be able to sort of replicate the Davis Cup team and to, you know, fill with j fill them with as many options as possible. But the one person we needed more than anything else was someone who would be able to look after eight kids, morning, noon and night. You know, obviously, you haven't been in the program, the star pupil from our program, you know what mom was like, right?

And she tasted every meal before the boys ate it and, you know, she got -- so she looked after three of us, then now she was looking after the eight of you, you know. And I think if it wasn't for mom looking after everyone like that, it would have been impossible to do it.

I think one very important factor is taking place as we speak and that's actually something that I had mentioned to the government many, many years ago, where the present sports minister has taken the initiative to actually make sport a part of the curriculum in school. Which means that if you go play tennis or you go play soccer or you go play any sport, for your college or for university, you're actually getting marks in school for it.

That is something that needed to have happened 25 years ago, but at least better late than never.

PAES: So we are all hopeful that these new initiatives promise a better future for our sport in India. But I was lucky to have exactly that kind of support while I was at school.

(on camera): We're at my school where I studied, the Magracakin College High Secondary School. I spent five years here with education and as well as a tennis school that used to be inside here. So we spent a lot of our day on the premises.

Good morning, sir.

How are you?

Good morning, sir.

How are you?


PAES: The school was amazing with us, because our teachers and our headmaster were so accommodating as far as our calendar, to travel for tournaments. They really looked after us and made sure that we had -- we had time.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: -- this morning. They're from the school. We like love you.

PAES: Thank you so much.

Thank you, sir.

And this is the playground that we used to play all of our football on. There's a tennis court down the back. There are two tennis courts down the back now.


PAES: How lovely.

Hi, sir.

How are you?

Nice to see you.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Go back. Go back.

PAES: You are well?


PAES: You're looking fit, sir.


PAES: You're looking very good.

N. CHENDHILVEL, LEANDER'S FORMER TEACHER: I was his class master when he was an A standard. And it was a -- a nice student, but a bit naughty when he was in there. And he used to be in the last row. He was the tallest boy in the class. And passionate -- very passionate about tennis and tennis only, nothing else.

PAES (voice-over): OK, I'll be honest with you. My teachers cut me some slack so I could focus on my tennis. Now that sport is part of the curriculum, hopefully all kids around the country will have the opportunity to balance sport and their studies.

CHENDHILVEL: We are really proud, we're proud of you, yes.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Get back. Get back.

PAES: I hope I've inspired some of these boys and girls to live out their dreams. For the girls in particular, one figure stands above all the others as a role model. Mallika Kapur tracked her down in Mumbai's prestigious Bombay Jintadi (ph).

MALLIKA KAPUR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I'm here to meet a woman who stands alone in the Indian games, a player who has broken record after record with the help of her deadly forehand. We meet.

Did you know that you were the most searched female tennis player in Google in 2010?

MIRZA: Yes, I did read about it.

KAPUR: Does that surprise you?

MIRZA: Did it surprise me?

No, because I think the year before that, I was the most Googled person in the world. So it didn't surprise me.

KAPUR (voice-over): Sania Mirza has been in the media spotlight throughout her career, not least for marrying the former Pakistan cricket captain, Shoaib Malik, in 2010. Mirza also received a fatwa, a religious edict by Muslim clerics for not keeping to the Muslim religious dress code on court.

MIRZA: The fact is that, yes, I'm a Muslim. And that has nothing to do with me playing tennis or anything. You know, what I believe in religiously and what (INAUDIBLE) I believe in religiously, I think, is a very personal issue and a very personal thing. And I think they forgot that the other 2,000 people that were playing also had a religion, but they were never asked about it.

I am a Muslim and I believe and I practice. So I think that's more than enough for me.

KAPUR (on camera): What would you say was the biggest obstacle when you were trying to break into the game professionally?

MIRZA: Oh, when I did start playing tennis, I don't think many people believed or even thought that sport could be a profession for a girl from Hidjabar (ph). When we used to say that one day I want to play woman, it was treated like a Jew, because it had never happened before.

To find a tennis court at that time was an obstacle, because in Hyderabad, there was about, I think, five tennis courts. Then to find a flip, a person to practice with, was an obstacle. Financially, I mean we didn't come from a family who had extensive money. And this is a sport where you spend most of the time. You get rich on -- only after you turn professional, you know. Even when you win Junior Wimbledon, I think -- I don't think a lot of people know, you don't get anything. All you get is a handshake in return and Junior Wimbledon.

KAPUR: Why do you think more Indian women haven't been successful in tennis?

MIRZA: I think that it still has a long way to go for people to still believe that, you know, women or girls can play it and they're not wasting their time or life. I mean they -- and I think a lot of parents still believe that it's -- it's a better bet that they become a doctor or a lawyer or they become a teacher, or, you know, so on and so forth. So I think that a little bit of the mentality still needs to change.

KAPUR (voice-over): Since hitting her highest ranking of 27 in the world five years ago, career threatening injuries to her wrist and knee have stalled Mirza's profession in recent seasons. She has some work to do to recover her singles ranking, but after reaching the semi-finals in both the mixed doubles and women's doubles of the Australian Open, Mirza is already back in the top 10 for doubles.

MIRZA: You know, like I said, 25 is not that young anymore. So I really do hope there's someone on the tour, you know, who can represent India on -- on a -- on a weekly basis, you know, at the highest level.


PAES: Best of luck to Sania for the rest of 2012.

And when we come back, India's future stars are put through their paces.


PAES: India has a respectable record in grand slam doubles and mixed doubles competitions over the years. Mahesh Bhupathi and myself have won 12 and 13 competitions respectively and this year's Australian Open was the latest in my tally.

Hi, Ramesh.


PAES: Welcome to the show.


PAES: Hello, uncle. Welcome to the show. Thank you so much.

(voice-over): But we have not yet won a grand slam singles event. I met India's most successful family in tennis, Ramnat and Krishnan and his son Ramesh to try and find out why.

Three generations of the Krishnan family dominated Indian tennis from the 1930s to the late 1980s, guiding India to two Davis Cup finals. Ramnat Krishnan reached world number three in 1960, with a semi-final appearance at Wimbledon, India's highest ever ranking of singles as of then.

(on camera): Gentlemen, welcome to the show.

Uncle Ramnatan, I'm going to start with you.

Your father, Mr. T.K. Ramanathan, he is the backbone of the family that started you with tennis.

When you started playing with him, was that your first time?

RAMANATHAN KRISHNAN, FORMER WORLD NUMBER 3: Yes. That was 1947. I didn't have a racket of my own. I was a 10 -year-old boy. So I picked up my father's racket and hit the first tennis ball in (INAUDIBLE) New Delhi. My career started with that.

But my father was a self-taught tennis player. He is never a junior player, because he had started tennis when he was about 19. And within five years, he was one of the top players in the country.

Then he taught me. Then he taught Ramesh, also. So we are called the three generation of tennis players from a family.

PAES: I believe your father actually built a tennis court at home before he built a house?

RAMANATHAN KRISHNAN: Yes. Because my father had played tennis. He had problems getting practice enough. So he decided to have a court first. So he made the tennis court first. And he wanted to be very near it, so we built the house next door.

RAMANATHAN KRISHNAN: Everybody in our house, other than my grandmother, and -- and everybody else was playing tennis. So there's not really a tennis court, but no shortage of sparring partners, as well. So there were times at four or five in the morning suddenly my grandfather would have an idea and said we need to try this. He'd put the lights on and we could play.

PAES: But you'd not won a singles grand slam yet. And both Ramesh, yourself, and Uncle Ramanathan, yourself, have come the closest to winning.

Why do you believe that in India so far, we have not won a singles grand slam?

RAMESH KRISHNAN: Well, again, I think there is a little bit of a jump from being in the semi-finals and to winning. It's almost as if you have to play two Wimbledon finals then back-to-back. And that is where the champions, be it Rod Laver or Roger Federer, I think they -- they kick in and know they are able to raise, again, that extra 10 or 15 percent and to be able to pick at the right time.

In the semi-finals and finals, you have to bring your best game out.

RAMANATHAN KRISHNAN: I think we are not as mentally tough as some of these other people, these Europeans and Americans and Australians. And I think we give up mentally. This is one of the reasons I think serving is a physical fitness (INAUDIBLE) particularly stronger, because they train much harder.

PAES: Sir Ramanathan, Ramesh, thank you so much for making a difference to my life and also to all of India.

(voice-over): With the words of the Krishnans running through my mind, I went on to find out what's been done at the grassroot levels to develop physical endurance and mental toughness. The Triangle Tennis Trust is one of the oldest and biggest academies in Southern India. Around 350 children train here every day. Past alumni included India's top current singles player, Somedev Devvarman. Even Pat Cash has led a coaching session here.

Hey, you will be doing (INAUDIBLE).

Hamat Viaz (ph) oversees the physical training program at the academy.

HAMAT VIAZ: Faster, Borat. Faster. Move faster.

PAES: Vias' coaches Runjat Virali (ph). He's focused on improving fitness of one of India's top players.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You know who can outlast who is -- is the game right now. So...


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: -- I started off not so good. You know, I was not in great physical shape and everything. But I really feel that I have -- I'm very lucky to have a very good trainer. And he's very modern in adapting to the latest techniques and how to work on the latest things.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The players need more of mass practice and tournament practice and they need to be exposed to players of higher caliber, I think a person that is not available in India. And so these players will have to go abroad and -- and that -- that requires a lot of sponsorship and traveling across (INAUDIBLE).

PAES (voice-over): My Davis Cup teammate, Vishna Vardahn, has been one of the most successful at developing the physical side of the game. But has been held back by a lack of funding. With only one ATP event in India, the Davis Cup provides the best opportunity for young Indians to test themselves against the top players of the world.

(on camera): Physically, you keep up with the Westerners. You're 6 - - 6'3" in height. You've got big shoulders. You've got strong legs. Physically you can keep up with them.

What's the biggest challenges that you find training in India?

VISHNU VARDHAN, INDIAN DAVIS CUP PLAYER: I mean (INAUDIBLE). I mean this -- it's been just three years that I could get some training abroad, in Florida, in Texas. And -- and that has me -- helped me a bit. The most important difference was the Davis Cup practice team. I mean I was in the -- in the training team for the last five or six years and -- and that helped me a lot. (INAUDIBLE) from you and this was great.

PAES (voice-over): The Davis Cup will continue to develop our talent on the international stage. But it will take much more investment in coaching staff and facilities to produce our first singles grand slam champion.

Next, we meet the man who is chasing just that dream, India's top singles player, Somdev Devvarman.


PAES (voice-over): Local hero, Somedev Devvarman, is the only Indian singles male player to break the top 100 in recent years. He's known as the prince of Indian tennis.

So while we're chatting, I'm going to help him pick out fine clothes to match his royal status.

(on camera): Som, welcome to the show.


Thanks for the very kind introduction.

PAES (voice-over): Like me, Somedev started out at the Britannia Amritraj Tennis Academy.

(on camera): We both grew up in the city. tell me about your growing years in the academy.

DEVVARMAN: I mean with -- within the first couple of months of being at the academy, you know, I was introduced to a few things that I -- I had never really experienced in my life. You know, we would wake up at five in the morning with the bell, the loudest bell you have ever heard in this world.

PAES: That was a pretty loud bell, wasn't it?

DEVVARMAN: Exactly. It went right on top of my bed. You know, it would ring. The -- the -- all the boys together would try and scheme up ways to, you know, so we'd put bubble gum on the bell so it wouldn't ring or, you know, we'd take the fuse out. But you look back at it now, you know, there's a lot of good things and a lot of things we've learned from it.

And, you know, one of the things you could definitely take away is, you know, how disciplined we actually became, as 15 year olds. You know, whether we knew it or not, we were up at 5:00 in the morning. We were at the track at 5:30 in the morning. And before school, we finished a full workout, went to school, came back from school, went straight to practice.

PAES: Just to change this up a little bit, we're going to step in front of my favorite soup (ph) stores. I've got a list of price for some and we're going to show you a little Indian culture.

What are these?

What are these?


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That shirt runs it through. That's a $15 size. Thirty-four.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It looks pretty good.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do you like that design?


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's fashionable.




PAES: Dev, what do you think?

DEVVARMAN: Lee, yo, come on, buddy, what are you doing?

I'm picking one out for you (INAUDIBLE).

How do you like this?

PAES: Oh, man.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This all is done woven by the hand...


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: -- stitched by the hand.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is so fine. It's really pretty.


DEVVARMAN: I -- I look like a girl. There you go. We have a winner.

PAES: So now that we've made sure that our golden boy of Indian tennis is all kitted out, Som, let's get back to that tennis talk.

DEVVARMAN: All right.

PAES: But when you finished your three years in the academy, then came a decision to go and play the juniors. Then came a decision to go to college in America. Talk me through that.

DEVVARMAN: First of all, I was playing a way stronger competition. You know, think that is one of the most important things. And I was playing against them in practice. I was playing against them in matches, you know, week in and week out.

You know, when -- when I went there, I had a specialized strength coach that, you know, analyzed every single thing I did, knew every single weakness and strength and worked on me very specifically for the whole four years that I was there.

PAES: You've been at the finals of Johannesburg. You've been in the finals of the Chennai Open. You have still retained some of your college training systems.

DEVVARMAN: And I think more than that, I've -- I'm -- I'm very, very close with both Scott (ph) and Milosh (ph). These are the guys that teach me everything I know. And they really, really care about me and they invested in me, you know, more than I can imagine.

PAES: But there's one other thing that's quite unique about you and a lot of fun, is your music.


PAES: Now we did some music together.


PAES: That Davis Cup in Taipei, we actually played some music.


PAES: You had some scores down. We got some beats together.


PAES: We mixed our own little tune.

DEVVARMAN: Yes. You know, music is -- is something that I really thoroughly enjoy and I can do it any time of the day just to relax.

PAES: A multi-talented man. His backing is pretty awesome, as well. Somdev Devvarman, one of my dear friends.


PAES: Thank you.


PAES: Well, that's the wrap for my Indian special.

Thank you so much for watching.

And on to my good mate, Pat Cash, for the next time.

Bye now.

Hanah (ph), Gemini Studios, please.