Vijay Armitaj

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.
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Indian tennis player Vijay Armitraj

From Tennis strangest matches by Peter Seddon:

When the Australians were drawn to play India away in the Davis Cup Eastern Zone final of 1973, none of them expected an easy ride.
Skulduggerous practice as par for the course everywhere in that competition and India, moreover was always regarded as a bit risky, even by Aussies with larger-hardened stomachs and an in-built confidence to ply their trade anytime, anywhere and against anyone. But what they actually got exceeded their worst nightmares.

They didn’t really expect beautifully manicured grass and, even though the Indians were quite capable of delivering it, the hosts didn’t like to disappoint their guests. Lawn tennis, after all, had long since been played on many different surfaces – clay, sand, gravel, concrete, shale, ash, tarmac, rubber, wood, tiles, carpet, parquet blocks – it was just a case of what ingredients they’d opt for.
Their recipe was imaginative enough. Starting with a foundation of sand and brick, then overlaying fine gavel, they topped it off with a layer of surface clay appetizingly mixed with liberal helpings of ripe cow dung, all left to bake hard under the fierce midday sun.
At least they had no trouble finding the courts: “Just follow yer nose mate” was the Aussie cry.

Equally keen to live up to their reputation in the matter of stadium design, the Indians had lost no time in commissioning the construction of a state-of-the-art arena at the Madras Gymkhana Club – unfortunately, the state-of-the-art 1973 style was distinctly Primitive School. The whole 15,000-capacity stadium was built in just ten days; timber poles and planks were lashed together, using the odd nail here and thee where real strength was needed and the whole thing was topped off with a roof of dried palm fronds. Health and safety inspectors and fire officers were not part of the package.
Yet, strange as this venue was for what was, after all, the twentieth and not the nineteenth century, that wasn’t the worst of it for the gallant Australians.

As the veteran squad (they called them Dad’s Army) – of Newcombe, Anderson, Masters, Giltinan and Cooper – arrived in Madras, they were not so much given a warm welcome as a pretty darn hot one. The Pakistani terrorist group Black December had issued death threats against them as part of an effort to get the Indian government to release 90,000 Pakistani prisoners of war. By way of a warm up they’d blown up an airline office a few days before.

If ever the resolve of a tennis team had been tested this was surely it, but the Australians agreed to stay after a personal guarantee of safety was offered by the assistant commissioner of police. Meals were checked for poison, police with machine guns guarded the visitors day and night and all letters and packages were intercepted. Always at the players’ side was the best sharp-shooter the Madras police could muster – dressed in casual civvies, his ever-present sun hat certainly looked the part but actually concealed his revolver.

It is to the eternal credit of the Australians that they overcame what must surely rank as the worst conditions ever to prevail at a Davis Cup match to win the tie without losing a rubber. They went on to win the trophy that year, taking the Indian experience in their side like true pros.

The story that John Newcombe, asked to sum up the trip in a few words, simply replied that “The courts were crap”, is almost certainly apocryphal.