By Debayan Mukherjee
Kolkata, Aug 18 (IANS) Notwithstanding his failing health and advanced age, India’s celebrated tennis player and legendary coach Akhtar Ali still keeps a keen eye on the courts of the eastern metropolis to spot and guide budding talent. Now a 80-plus veteran, Ali leads a simple life, spending time with his grandchildren and has little hesitation in saying: “I have no regrets”.
A member of India’s Davis Cup teams from the late 1950s to the mid 1960s, Ali holds an enviable 9-2 win-loss record in the tourney – rated as the World Cup of the sport. Proficient in both singles and doubles, he has played alongside the country’s legends like Ramanathan Krishnan, Naresh Kumar, Premjit Lall and Jaidip Mukerjea.
Later, as a coach, he guided the creme de la creme of Indian tennis — Ramesh Krishnan, Vijay Amritraj, Anand Amritraj and Leander Paes. Even Sania Mirza once publicly expressed her indebtedness to Ali for having set her on the right track during her formative years.
As a player, Ali grabbed the limelight in 1955, when he first claimed the Junior national title, and continued his wonderful show to reach the semi-finals of the Junior Wimbledon.
The Davis Cup stints till bring tears to his eyes as Ali turns emotional and nostalgic.
“In 1964, I went to Lahore to play the Davis Cup. Myself, S.P. Misra and Gaurav Misra. Four matches we won, one match could not be completed due to bad weather,” he recalled during an interview with IANS.
But it is India’s 3-2 victory over Brazil in 1966 on his South Club home ground that Ali cherishes the most, though he did not get to play any of the matches.
“The Davis Cup was a big thing in those days. I was a member of the Davis Cup squad. When India beat Brazil, that was a big moment and that is the lasting memory I have. That was the first big tie we won and we reached the final,” he said.
The Brazil victory and his son Zeeshan Ali’s success as both a tennis player and coach keeps coming back as one converses with him.
“I have no regrets. I am very attached with the 1966 Brazil win. My son is also a national champion and Davis Cup coach. There is no other family in the world which has a father-son duo to have played and also coached Davis Cup teams”.
In fact, the International Tennis Federation confirmed this in 2013.
Talking about his success as a coach, Ali said: “I enjoy coaching and I work hard. I have produced the maximum national champions and Davis Cup players. I also coached Belgium and Malaysia. I went to the best coaches to learn,” said Ali, who got the coveted Arjuna Award in 2000.
He leads a disciplined and routine life in a nicely done-up South Kolkata flat.
“After I wake up, I do my namaaz. Then I go to the club (South Club). I go to the Saturday Club also. Then I come home, have my lunch and if there is bank work, I do that.
“I lead a simple life. I go to South Club again and help the players. I am not coaching anybody at the moment because I am not well. But I help BTA (Bengal Tennis Association) in finding promising players. That keeps me busy. I love coaching. I enjoy it.
“I go to bed early. Sometimes my grandchildren come over and I spend time with them. It’s good fun,” he recalled, satisfaction ringing in his voice.
However, notwithstanding his high spirits, Ali has recently had his bouts of illness.
“I had lost eight kilos. My hand was shaking and it was tough for me. I took a lot of medicine. I saw the doctor. Doctor told me this was due to old age.
“I am much better now. I am pulling on. I am fit. I train light and can run a little bit” he said.
India’s recent performance in Davis Cup, a tournament in which the country finished runners-up thrice in the past, may not be that noteworthy, but Ali is optimistic.
“We have talented youngsters, but they have to work very hard,” he maintained.
(Debayan Mukherjee can be contacted at [email protected])