In this rapid-fire interview with The Smart CEO, Vijay Amritraj shares the key lessons he has learnt from the various aspects of his life and career
S. PREM KUMAR
Vijay Amritraj could be called the jack-of-all-trades and the master of one. An acclaimed tennis player, sports commentator, actor and philanthropist, Amritraj has shaped up his entire life and career with a passion for excellence. Born in Chennai as a weak, unhealthy child, he worked hard and was first recognized in 1973 when he reached the quarterfinals of two Grand Slam tournaments.
In his tennis career, he has beaten some of the world’s best players including John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg. He was ranked No. 1 in Asia for 14 years and was awarded a Padma Shri by the Government of India, for enhancing the prestige of the country.
Soon after, Vijay embarked on a career in television sports and commentary and took over as the lead anchor for ESPN Star Sports, covering the Wimbledon, US Open and ATP tours, along with the PGA Masters. Vijay then turned to the entertainment business, where he kicked off an acclaimed second career as a talk show host on Dimensions, a CNN-IBN program. He has played a significant role in strategizing a successful business entry for ESPN, Sony Entertainment, Turner Broadcasting, IMG and, ABC, in India and other parts of South Asia. He is on the board of directors of seventeen companies.
In 2001, he was appointed the UN Messenger for Peace by Secretary General Kofi Anan to raise awareness about the issue of drugs and HIV/AIDS. In 2006, after completing his assignment at the UN, he founded the Vijay Amritraj Foundation, to help and heal the underprivileged victims of disease, tragedy and circumstance, in India.
In this interview, he talks about his experiences in the various career opportunities he has explored, why his mother was the turning point in his life and, the parallels that can drawn between sports and business.
How do you reflect upon the various hats you’ve donned in your career?
Having been part of the tennis world as a player for 20 long years and having travelled to different parts of the world and interacting with people from diverse cultures, I always looked at my career in tennis as an education. It helped me evolve as a person, it enhanced my lifestyle and it was a huge learning experience. As magnanimous as it sounds, I always kept thinking that I live in an unreal world, because, all this could go away anytime. The next day, if I have an injury, it could possibly end my career. But, fortunately, I have been able to play for so long.
When my tennis career ended, a number of opportunities came my way. At this point, I had just two considerations in mind; to do something I would enjoy, and to continue to grow with it and perform better. For instance, when acting opportunities came along, it taught me a lot about film making, about being in front of and behind the camera and, about sales, marketing and distribution of films. Eventually, I began working with Star Sports, where I interacted with some of the most notable icons in various fields. Looking back, it’s been a wonderful ride and I look forward to many more years with them.
What is the one common trait between players such as Andre Agassi, Steffi Graf, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic, who’re other wise very different people?
I think it comes down to what is between your ears and how different players deals with a difficult situations they often find themselves in. When things are going well, it really doesn’t matter. But when players are confronted with difficult situations, say, a calf injury or your first serve is not going in or if the close calls are going against you, it is in such situations that the Nadals and Federers of the world do very well. In such situations, it is often how you deal with your future in the game. Do you go for the line? Do you keep the pace and go for the centre? In such situations, each of the champion players deals with it differently, yet they deal with clarity. That is why I say there are numerous good players, but very few champions.
What was the biggest turning point in your life?
In my tennis career, I had three matches that stand out. In life, there are so many instances that raise a flag. But to me the one I’ll never forget is the incredible support I received from my parents, especially my mother who always ensured that I was not left behind. I wasn’t doing well in school, I wasn’t healthy and she literally babysat me through everything I had to do at school. Looking back, if it wasn’t for my mother, I wouldn’t have come this far. It is an overwhelming feeling of inspiration I get from her.
I am sure you get this question a lot. Can we draw parallels between the world of sport and business?
The world of sport, especially tennis, teaches you a lot about how to adapt quickly to a particular situation. If you notice, Federer’s game is different when he plays Nadal and he adopts a different style while playing Djokovic. Even if you run a business that is well set, agility and adaptability is the key. In the business world, especially, it is not only about you the individual, but also your whole team. You get a lot of ideas from different people and it is always an interesting process to choose which ideas you choose to implement and the ones you choose to say no to. But circumstances change and it is this ability to adapt that is big commonality between sports and business.
Who is your greatest inspiration?
As I said, one a general basis, it is my mother. But from the world of sport it is Muhammad Ali, the legendary boxer. He was more than just a sportsman to me. I happened to work with him during my role as the Messenger of Peace at the UN and it was an experience I will never forget. Having watched him fight in the boxing ring let me tell you I have never seen anything like that. He is truly inspirational.
Finally, how did you perfect that trademark laugh of yours?
(Roars with laughter…) What is life without laughter? What is life without humour? That is why I have a soft corner for stand-up comedians. My dad had a great, infectious laugh and our house is always full of laughter. That’s how every house should be.