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The winner of the world’s biggest prize in men’s team tennis receives a colossal piece of hardware: a silver salad bowl atop three tiers of wooden plinths, weighing more than a hundred kilogrammes. In 1974, a talented group of Indian tennis players, all in their twenties, came within touching distance of this trophy.
It would have been a monumental achievement, a challenge to the white man’s domination of the sport. Since its inception in 1900, only four nations—the United States, Australia,  France and Great Britain—had won the Davis Cup. On the road to the finals that year, India beat Japan, upset defending champions Australia and prevailed over the Soviet Union. Their opponents in the final were equally unlikely: South Africa, a team of experienced professionals yet to stamp their authority on world tennis.
Things changed suddenly. The Indian players were competing at a tournament in Stockholm, 5000km from Delhi, when they heard the news. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s government had decided that the team would boycott the final against a country it had snapped diplomatic ties with on account of its apartheid policies. It remains the only time in Davis Cup history when a walkover decided the final.
Just six years earlier, the African-American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists in a Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympics, as their national anthem played, in defiance of grave consequences. It was at the peak of a tradition of using international sports platforms to protest racial and imperialist injustice. Some of the spirit of that period was reinvigorated last year. In the aftermath of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, the Black Lives Matter movement spread from the United States to international sporting arenas. Sports stars took the knee to protest systemic racism and discrimination against black people. Just a few months ago, Naomi Osaka wore seven different face masks, each with the name of an African-American victim of police brutality, to every match on her way to winning the US Open.
Yet the Indian boycott of the Davis Cup in 1974 remained a footnote, not just in the global history of civil rights and sport, but also in the nation’s own record of sporting glory. Tennis doesn’t stir up nationalistic fervour the way cricket does or hockey did. Journeymen tennis players, out of the country for months playing nondescript tournaments in far-flung places, aren’t seen as patriotic symbols in the way chest-thumping nationalist male cricketers are.
After that walkover, India slipped from being a contender to rank outsider in the Davis Cup. It hasn’t been part of the tournament’s elite 16-team World Group since 2012. Even in the golden years of the dream doubles pairing of Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi, India was never to progress beyond a semi-final.
Over the course of a couple of months last year, I spoke to players and administrators to recreate the history of that miss. The walkover was, in retrospect, the most honourable thing to do. But it wasn’t simple. The members of the Indian team are still divided over whether the government was justified in taking a stand. They unanimously believe that it was India’s best chance of lifting the trophy. Maybe it could have done for Indian tennis what winning the 1983 World Cup did for cricket.
Perhaps most unfairly, the tennis players had no say in the matter. For the All India Tennis Association, there was no question of creating consensus with their athletes, even about such a pivotal decision. India’s actions were among many that created an historic dissent against the South African regime. But it was also a moral victory obtained through fiat. It was, as such, entirely in line with how Indian tennis’s hard-won gains, both on and off the court, were consistently squandered.
he stars had aligned perfectly for this team. By the 1960s, it was a force to reckon with on home courts. Ramanathan Krishnan, Jaideep Mukerjea and Premjit Lall were called the Three Musketeers by the Indian media. Former players remembered that crowds of ten to fifteen thousand would come to watch them play. 
Remarkably, Krishnan reached back-to-back Wimbledon semi-finals in 1960 and 1961. In 1966, he led India to its first Davis Cup final. In 1974, he was the non-playing captain of a ridiculously young team that gave some of the world’s best tennis players a serious run for their money.
Vijay Amritraj, all of 20, had made it to the Wimbledon singles quarterfinal the previous year. A few months later, on the back of his reach and smart forecourt game, he’d beaten the great Bjorn Borg on his way to the US Open quarterfinal. In his brother Anand, 22; Jasjit Singh, 26; and Sashi Menon, 22, he had the perfect teammates, all restless and brimming with belief.
The Davis Cup is men’s tennis’s biggest team event, as close to anything the sport has to a World Cup. In 1974, 57 teams competed from three zones—Eastern (12 teams), Europe (33) and the Americas (12). The winners of the Eastern and Americas zones would face two of the best European teams in effective semi-finals. The winners of those matches would compete for the trophy in a “World Final.” 
Former players remembered that crowds of ten to fifteen thousand would come to watch the Three Musketeers play.
In 1974, the Indian team played three successive matches at home.  Opponents wilted in sweltering conditions on patchy grass courts. Roaring crowds hastened the meltdowns. In the Eastern Zone semi-final, India made Japan play in May temperatures in Kanpur. The Japanese lost 4-1. The week after, India took on Australia, 23-time champions. The team was undecided over the pick for second singles player—87th-ranked Anand Amritraj or 101st-ranked Jasjit Singh?
“I didn’t know till the draw was made that I would be playing against Australia,” Singh recalled. The visitors didn’t come with a full-strength squad, but Krishnan knew what it was like to face the might of the Australians. He’d played them in the 1966 Davis Cup final at Melbourne’s Kooyong Stadium. 
“They were just too strong for us then,” Krishnan said. In 1972 and 1973, India had been blanked 0-5 and 0-4 by the Australians, at home at that.
Jasjit Singh spent a sleepless night on the day before his unprecedented contest. Then he went out, and with the sun beating down and the crowd chanting his name, he battled Bob Giltinan, ranked 42 places ahead of him, to win 11-9, 9-11, 12-10, 8-6.
Outrageous score lines became a feature of the tie. The Davis Cup hadn’t adopted the new tie-break rule which had already been introduced at the US Open and Wimbledon.  Vijay Amritraj lost a four-setter to Australia’s No 1 John Alexander: 12-14, 15-17, 8-6, 2-6.
The Amritraj brothers had to come out on top in the doubles for India to have a realistic chance of winning the tie. “It was touch and go till the very end,” recalled Vijay, now 67. India took the first set at 17-15; Australia won the next 8-6. The marathon meant that the rubber would go into a second day. The next day, India took the third set quite easily, but then Australia battled hard to win the fourth 18-16. A winner hadn’t emerged after almost five hours of play.
The Aussies Colin Dibley and John Alexander were armed with monster serves. Somehow, against the run of play, India managed to get a break of serve in the first game of the fifth set. Dibley started to cramp up. “They had an option to take a ten-minute break at some time during the course of that fifth set and they ended up taking it at 5-4, with Anand serving for the match,” Vijay recalled. “I think Dibley had taken an injection (during the break). Alexander tried to cover the whole court. Anand managed to hold on to his serve and we won that fifth set.”
India had its nose ahead. Alexander, who was on his way to a career high of world number 8 the following year, shook off the defeat and beat Singh in the reverse singles. Then came the final singles rubber. Vijay overcame extreme fatigue to beat the grass court specialist Giltinan. Before his legs gave in, the crowd invaded the court and carried him off on their shoulders. The tie had lasted 327 games, a record still unbroken in Davis Cup history.
Next up was the Soviet Union in Pune in September. Davis Cup ties, then played from Friday to Sunday, were spread across the season. The Soviets had a player who was near impossible to break: Alex Metreveli, a Georgian who’d reached the Wimbledon singles final the previous year, and was world number 9 in the rankings that June.
After the teams won a match each on Day 1, the Amritraj brothers laboured to a crucial doubles win. The temporary bamboo and wood stands of the Deccan Gymkhana were packed to the rafters on the final day of play. Anand faced Teimuraz Kakulia in the first match of the reverse singles. Anand won the first set but lost the next two. “I took the 10-minute break after the third set,” Anand told me.
His mother came up to him and put a rosary in his pocket. “She said, ‘Don’t worry, you’ll be okay.’ I went in with a little more confidence. After I won the fourth set, I realised all I had to do was hang on. He was cramping and dying on his feet.”
He hung on. India was through to a Davis Cup final for the first time in the Open Era. 
or long years, South Africa was isolated from the international sporting arena. The country was barred from the Tokyo Olympics in 1964, 16 years after it passed racial segregation laws that barred non-whites (defined as “black,” “coloured,” or “Indian” in legislation) from representing South Africa in international sporting events.
Before Mexico 1968, the South African Olympic association agreed to send a mixed-race team, but refused to commit to allowing mixed-race sporting competition in South Africa. There was pressure from many African nations. South Africa were barred once again, and then expelled outright from the International Olympic Committee in 1970. That same year, England’s cricket board called off a home series against South Africa.
The isolation grew. In 1973, Argentina forced the federal committee of its national rugby union to resign because it gave permission to a club to tour South Africa. In November, the Argentine government snapped all rugby relations with South Africa  ––a big deal, because rugby was seen as dear to white South Africans.
The South African Davis Cup team was banned from 1970 to 1972, in part due to the efforts of American tennis legend Arthur Ashe, who had been repeatedly denied a visa to play in South Africa. When they were reinstated in 1973, Basil Reay, secretary of the Davis Cup Nations’ Committee, had explained the move saying that there had been “some change in South African political climate, at least sufficient in the view of the committee to enable them to play.” But South Africa were placed in the Americas Zone rather than the Europe Zone, where the other African countries participated.
“I spent most of my young life in that era. I finally left because I was really tired of representing a system that was insane,” Cliff Drysdale, South Africa’s number 1 player in the 1970s, wrote in a column in 2013. “Protests greeted each tie. We played a Davis Cup tie where 70 percent of the spectators were actually protesters, which made it impossible to play the tie publicly.” 
The travelling tennis team was a target for activists. In 1969, they were greeted with flour bombs in Birmingham, England. In 1977, during a tie against America in California, anti-apartheid activists poured motor oil over the court.
“There was political unrest when South Africa played,” Raymond Moore, one of the members of the 1974 team, told me over the phone. “It wasn’t easy and it wasn’t pleasant. But I never felt unsafe at the time. Maybe it would have been different in today’s world.”
As part of the Americas Zone, South Africa were slated to play their ties in South American countries. Argentina handed them a walkover in the first round. Chile refused to host them. The tie was moved to Bogotá, Colombia, where South Africa won 3-2 against Chile. They beat Colombia by the same scoreline to cement their qualification for the semi-finals. There, they faced the winners of the Europe Zone: Italy. Much against the odds, South Africa beat a strong Italian side 3-2 at Ellis Park, Johannesburg. Out of 57 teams, they were one of two left standing. It was the first, and only time, that South Africa would make a Davis Cup final.
hough the India-South Africa encounter would have been a first in the Open Era, the two countries were inextricably linked by history. The first Indian settlers in South Africa were bonded labourers shipped in by the Dutch in the seventeenth century. After the British took over Natal province in the middle of the nineteenth century, more batches of indentured labourers were imported from the Indian possession.
By 1893, when Mohandas Gandhi arrived in Durban to work as a lawyer for a Kathiawari businessman, there were more Indians than whites in the province. Gandhi stayed on in Natal after the completion of his employment contract to lead the resistance against a law that sought to disenfranchise Indians. Gandhi’s first act of civil disobedience was in 1906, against a discriminatory Transvaal Colony law that required Asian males to register their fingerprints with the government.
These links were still vivid in people’s memories. India was one of the first countries to censure South Africa’s institutionalised racism, even before it achieved its own independence from the British.  In 1954, Jawaharlal Nehru’s government severed diplomatic ties. In 1967, the African National Congress of Nelson Mandela opened its first office in New Delhi. India staunchly championed anti-apartheid moves within the United Nations and at other international forums.
Even sports had racial attributes in apartheid South Africa. Cricket, rugby and tennis were seen as “white” sports while soccer belonged to the “Africans.” Sporting arenas, like all public spaces in the country, were segregated. Some didn’t even allow non-whites.
Johannesburg, where India was drawn to play the Davis Cup final, was entrenched in this arrangement. “Ellis Park was the headquarters of South African tennis,” South African journalist Sy Lerhman explained in an email. Ellis Park is situated in what was then regarded as a white area—most of its 6,000 seats were reserved for whites.
“We had worked so hard. Why should their political views change our career?”
At the time, Indian passports could not get you an entry in South Africa. As the Indian players could not stay in hotels reserved for whites, special allowances would have to be made. In spite of this, the South Africa Tennis Federation were keen on playing the match. When the Indian tennis federation did not respond to their invite, they were open to playing at a neutral venue.
Left to themselves, the tennis authorities may well have decided on a workaround that would allow both sides to compete. We can only speculate. But on 29 October 1974, more than a month before the scheduled final, India decided against it.
“India made a firm declaration today that she will not play against South Africa in the Davis Cup tennis final,” the Press Trust of India reported. “India’s stand was re-iterated officially by Mr. R.K. Khanna, secretary of All-India Lawn Tennis Association, here. The decision, he said, was in keeping with India’s total opposition to racial discrimination practiced in South Africa.”
nil Khanna, former All India Tennis Association (AITA) president and son of R.K. Khanna, was 21 in 1974. He told me that the federation’s decision to withdraw followed a directive from the government of India. “But it was necessary for the AITA not to show this government interference at that time. Otherwise, they would have been banned from Davis Cup for a couple of years,” he explained to me. “The ITF (International Tennis Federation) policy is very clear. Once you enter the Davis Cup competition, you have to play whoever you are drawn against and wherever. You cannot cite political or diplomatic relations for giving up a tie.” 
This was classic sporting morality: during the Cold War, stadiums became diplomatic minefields, and international sporting bodies needed to draw the line at governments interfering in sport, even if there was little they could do about politics. The AITA, to avoid looking like they were circumventing ITF policy, contended that South Africa’s participation was “endangering the successful holding of the competition.” Khanna said that the federation had to take sole responsibility for a decision in which it had no say. In turn, the players, too, were left out of the process.
All four of them were competing at the Stockholm Open in Sweden when they heard the news through press reporters. Singh, who is now 73, remembers being stung by the injustice of it. “Yes, I think it was our best chance,” he said in a phone interview. “And we had tried like hell to get there.”
“India made a mistake by not playing,” he added. “I understand the government’s political views may be different than mine. Why were we punished for their thinking? We had worked so hard. Why should their political views change our career?” That was Singh’s first and last Davis Cup. He didn’t play another because of differences with the federation.
An upset Anand Amritraj called R.K. Khanna from Stockholm and railed at him for more than 15 minutes. “We asked him whether the decision had been taken by the AILTF  or the government,” Amritraj was quoted as saying in a Reuters article on 1 November. “He said it was his decision. So we told him we would not play for India again.” Anand told me that he learnt about the government’s involvement only after a month or so. That helped him make some sort of peace with the decision. With the benefit of hindsight, his brother Vijay thinks that it was the morally right thing to do. “As a 20-year-old, as an athlete, at that time was I disappointed? Yes, no question,” he told me over the phone from Los Angeles.
On 1 December 1974, the South African players were handed the silverware in a presentation at Ellis Park. The four members of the squad—Bob Hewitt, Frew McMillan, Raymond Moore and Bob Maud—posed with the trophy and smiled for the cameras. “It was a hollow victory,” remembered Moore. “Obviously, we would have preferred to have played the match.
“Personally, I was against South African policy. A couple of years after 1975, I stopped representing South Africa in protest. I understood what the government of India did. As a sportsman, I was just disappointed that politics had intruded into the sport.”
Neutral players felt that India should have played the match and proved that they could compete equally in what was thought to be a white man’s sport. One of these critics happened to be Arthur Ashe. He called the decision a “poor strategic move.” It seemed ironic to some. Ashe had been a key figure in keeping South Africa out of the Davis Cup between 1970 and 1972. But the champion might have indirectly contributed to the apartheid state re-entering world tennis: South Africa had handed Ashe a visa just days before their case for reinstatement came up before the world tennis body. 
he memory of 1974 has been fogged up by the failings of recent years. India reached their third Davis Cup final in 1987––the last time, as of this writing. On the clay courts of chilly Gothenburg, India was blanked 5-0 by a strong Swedish side led by then four-time Grand Slam champion Mats Wilander.
In the 1990s, Leander Peas and Mahesh Bhupathi double-handedly kept India afloat in the World Group.  They pulled off some memorable wins: Paes beating Henri Leconte to upset France in 1993;  Paes getting the better of future Wimbledon champion Goran Ivanisevic to pip Croatia in 1995; Bhupathi staging a fairy-tale comeback to beat Gabriel Silberstein in the deciding rubber of the tie against a Marcelo Rios-led Chile in 1997. Yet, the team never managed to make a final.
“We were always the underdogs,” Bhupathi told me. “Even in 1974, we were the underdogs. A lot of it comes down to team composition. I have heard stories from Naresh Kumar and Jaideep Mukerjea that when they played Davis Cup, they knew that they were getting two points for sure from Ramanathan. They had to focus and win one more point and they were there.
“Then when Vijay, Anand and Ramesh (Krishnan)  were playing, they had two guys who were constantly in the top 50 in the world. And we had a great doubles team in Vijay and Anand.
“When I was playing, we had Leander on the team who had this amazing ability to raise his game. And we were there as a doubles team. If I could pull off a miraculous win like I did with Chile or Holland and support him, then anything was possible.”
After India slipped out of the World Group in 1999, they made it back only for a brief period in 2010 and 2011. Poetically, the tie that helped India re-enter the World Group was a 4-1 victory against South Africa in 2009. The venue was Ellis Park, Johannesburg.
Somdev Devvarman played a heroic role in that victory: he scripted a come-from-behind victory over Rik de Voest in a match that lasted four hours and 44 minutes. Over the following decade, the decline has been steep. At the Davis Cup, India has always relied on that one player who plays out of his skin on the day, fuelled by the passion of representing the flag. That hero has been missing.
he last time India played a World Group playoff at home was against Italy more than two years ago. It was hoped that the clay-loving Italians, without their star Fabio Fognini, would slip up on the grass lawns of Kolkata’s South Club. But, in the end, the tie was not even competitive: India didn’t manage to win a set in the singles.
To have a shot at entering the World Group, the unspoken rule is to have at least one singles player in the top 100. France, the top-ranked team currently, has 11 players in the top 100. India, ranked 22, has none. With Bhupathi retired and Paes at the end of his tether, even the doubles point that India took for granted is up for grabs.
While unfortunate, it seems a logical outcome for an ecosystem that has thrived on individual brilliance rather than sustained effort. Players consistently complain about the federation’s lack of a plan. A formal scouting or talent development programme is missing. A National Tennis Centre was established only in January 2021.
From Ramanathan Krishnan to Sumit Nagal,  players have had to lean on their families for financial and logistical support. Jasjit Singh was the first Indian player to fly to the US on a university tennis scholarship programme in 1966. Since then, several Indian players, including Bhupathi and Devvarman, have taken that route.
“The fact that India has not capitalised on Sania Mirza’s success is, to me, the biggest shame,” said Devvarman. “Or Lee-Hesh’s success. They were global superstars. What do we have to show for that? At which level are they trying to grow the sport? Grassroots, amateur, professional? Nowhere.”
In countries that are regulars in the World Group, like the US and Australia, talent is scouted and nurtured from a very young age. Even nations like Japan and Canada, which were outposts on the tennis map just two decades ago, have overtaken three-time Davis Cup finalists India convincingly.  But Anil Khanna underplayed concerns about a decline. “I am very proud of what India has done in the past 40-50 years in tennis,” he said. “Only 15 countries have won the Davis Cup. How many countries have reached the final three times?”
“The fact that India has not capitalised on Sania Mirza’s success is the biggest shame. Or Lee-Hesh’s success.”
The lack of institutional support is hitting Indian tennis players hard. Vijay calls tennis the “highest-risk business you can be in.” Competition has grown exponentially. In 1973, when the ATP  began its ranking system, there were a total of 186 players. At the end of 2020, there were 1999 ranked players in the system. Only the top 200 on the men’s and women’s tour stand to earn real money. Most spend a lifetime trying to break even. In an earlier interview, Nagal had told me it takes about $150,000 a year crisscrossing the world to play the full schedule.
In the past three decades, Indian tennis has generated a significant amount of bad press, with good reason. Selection season before a team event is rife with misunderstandings. The fraternity gets riven into camps, and allegations of sabotage are traded in the sports pages of the dailies. Communication lines are cut and young players pay the price. Unlike in 1974, however, there is no moral victory to be won.
“The problem is we are trying to compete at the highest level without doing the work required,” Devvarman said. “People ask, ‘How do you fix the system?’ No, you can’t fix a corrupt system. You have to start from scratch.”
“We were able to join the government in saying that the South African system was totally wrong,” Vijay Amritraj said. “They were not being fair to their own people. So when you look at it from that perspective, which I didn’t have as a 20-year-old by a long shot, we did the right thing.”
Strictly speaking, India’s decision did nothing to move the South African government. Anand told me that one of the reasons the players were so upset is because, at the time, tennis players weren’t particularly tuned in with the outside world. “We were strictly playing the game, trying to get ahead,” he said. “Having said that, tennis in the US was completely a white man’s sport. In all the tournaments we played here, there was not one black tennis player apart from Ashe.  Even the people you associated with—the tournament organisers, the families we stayed with  —were white. That’s all Vijay and I knew.
“We were just there to play tennis, have fun, make a little bit of money, get on with it. Even when we played in the South, places like Houston, Little Rock, Memphis, Jackson, never once did we feel any kind of discrimination. We didn’t feel it, didn’t know anything about it, and obviously didn’t do anything about it.”
Indian tennis pros were a novelty when the Amritraj brothers first started touring the United States. It is possible they evoked curiosity more than anything else. Vijay remembered walking through elite tennis clubs in Kolhapuri chappals and ‘Madras checks’ t-shirts.
“Now the world has changed, especially in the last 10 years,” Anand told me. “Athletes take up causes. The BLM movement has really caught on.”
Vijay, however, pointed out that BLM and anti-apartheid movements are like “chalk and cheese.” Apartheid institutionalised overt discrimination. Black Lives Matter is about a fundamental social injustice that will take much longer to resolve. “Society has to mature to be able to understand it,” he said.
I was curious to learn how a tennis player from a later generation might have felt about the boycott. Devvarman, India’s highest-ranked player in the last three decades, spent his formative training years at the now-defunct Britannia Amritraj Tennis Academy in Chennai. Devvarman, from the north-eastern state of Tripura, is a rare Indian athlete who’s gone on record, publicly and critically, about social justice issues. He’s spoken up about the racism he faced when he was younger, and has also condemned instances of police brutality––not in the United States, something many Indian stars have found easy to do, but in India.
“I can’t speak for the emotions that the players were going through,” Devvarman said, about the 1974 walkover. “If I worked my ass off and got to a final, and was going to win something this special, I don’t know how it would be to have that taken away from me.
“But the fact that our sport, players from our country, had a fairly important role to play in the worldwide recognition of that”––the apartheid policies of South Africa––“is pretty cool. There are things in the world that are more important than winning and losing tennis matches.”
The Amritraj brothers, once furious at being denied the chance, have even found a way to laugh about it. Moore, who is now settled in the US like the brothers, told me that they meet every year: “I tell them how soundly we would have beaten them.” Vijay begged to differ. “The only question,” he said, “is whether we would have beaten them 3-2 or 4-1.”
Davis Cup tradition mandates that all team members of the finalist sides get replicas of the trophy. India didn’t get their replicas because they didn’t show up at Johannesburg.
At a star-studded party on the side-lines of Wimbledon in 2012, Anand Amritraj bumped into Francesco Ricci Bitti, then president of the ITF. He requested him to “rectify” the wrong. Ricci Bitti asked him to make a formal complaint, so that very night, Anand drafted the letter in his hotel room.
“About two months later, all of us got trophies,” recalled Anand. “It was almost 40 years later, but we finally received it.”
Deepti Patwardhan is a freelance sports writer based in Mumbai.