Vijay Armitaj

Davis Cup 1973: kidnapping threat in India

From John Newcombe’s autobiography, Newk: Life on and off the court

In 1973, with all players, contact professionals or not, allowed to play Davis Cup again, I was raring to make up for lost time. I decided to forego the pro circuit that year and concentrate only on the Grand Slams and winning the Cup back for Australia, after America had hogged it for the past five years.

The early rounds of our Davis Cup campaign under captain Neale Fraser took us to Japan and India. With Rod Laver and Ken Rosewall temporarily unavailable, Mal Anderson, Geoff Masters and I were the singles players, while Geoff and I handled the doubles. Our Cup tie at Chepauk in Madras, southern India, was held in unbelievable temperature regularly over the 40-degree-Celsius mark. After three games you’d be drenched with sweat.
Something else we had to get acclimatised to was the playing surface: the court was made of dried cow dung, which played a bit like fast, hard clay. Once I got used to the idea I was okay.

At lunchtime 10 days before the tie began, we players were hanging around in our fifth-floor hotel rooms when Neale Fraser called us down to a room in the administrative section of the hotel. Standing there with him was a guy who was the spitting image of the actor Sidney Poitier. After Neale introduced him to us as a colonel in the Indian security forces, this imposing fellow gave us some scary news. According to a message intercepted by Interpol, Pakistani terrorists were about to take reprisals against India in protest at the latter’s holding 90,000 Pakistan prisoners of war from the two countries’ recent contretemps. One possible target was the Davis Cup event. Oh great, I thought. As one of the world’s best-known players, I reckoned I’d be ripe for kidnapping or assassination.

Colonel Poitier told us we could leave India and finish the Cup tie in a neutral country, or continue playing in Madras.

“If you choose to stay”, he said, “I can guarantee you maximum security. We’ll have guards with you all the time and if a bullet is fired at you, it will pass through me first, and if a knife comes, it will have to pass through me,” he declared, stabbing with his finger at his barrel chest.

We were not about to be stood over by terrorists. We’d finish the Cup in Madras. Suddenly our hotel became a fortress as the security men moved all other guests off our floor and stationed armed guards at every entrance and exit. There were soldiers with machine guns in the lobby, and a machine-gunner at the front entrance of the hotel and on the driveway outside. When we traveled to the stadium, we went in a convoy escorted by army vehicles in front and behind. At our matches, 300 of the people in the 10,000 capacity-crowd perched in makeshift bamboo grandstands were military staff.

Vijay Armitraj was Indian tennis’s new hot-shot. Just 19 years old, he was skillful and very, very fit. His opponent in the first singles match was Mal Anderson, 38-year-old veteran, who’d last played Davis Cup in 1958 and had only returned to the scene the year before. Vijay could have been excused for thinking that in the debilitating Madras heat, Mal would be easy meat. What he didn’t know, however was that Mal was an A-grade squash player, extremely fit, agile as a cat, who, coming from Brisbane, was no stranger to a hot day. He gave Vijay the shock of his life, thrashing him 6-1 6-2 6-1. Mal’s great win was one of the best Davis Cup displays I’ve eve witnessed.

In the second singles match, wearing a floppy hat to ward off the sun, I beat Vijay’s brother Anand 6-2 6-1 6-0. Next day in the doubles, Geoff Masters and I saw off a spirited performance by Vijay and Premjit Lall to give Australia an unassailable 3-0 lead.

After the tie we didn’t hang around Madras and caught the first flight out. We were bound for Hong Kong but had a one-night stopover in Calcutta, another city on red alert. Armed soldiers in army vehicles met us at the airport and drove us to our hotel, whee they’d again cleared our floor of other guests. First thing next morning, the army whisked us to the airport and onto our plane to Hong Kong. I don’t know who was happier, us or the Indian authorities, but I’d put my money on us.

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