Amritraj trades in backhand for backlot

Film biz happened on his way from the Forum

Before Hollywood seduced Ashok Amritraj into the business of entertainment, the transcontinental producer was himself an entertainer with a fierce backhand. Together with his older brothers, Vijay and Anand, he was among the first Indians to play professional tennis at the highest levels of international competition.

“It was the family business,” says Amritraj.

“I’ve also played a lot of tennis with him over the years,” says Overture CEO Chris McGurk, “but I’ve never won. He never lets me win. He’s very competitive.”

Following in the footsteps of his brothers, who had already made their mark on the pro tennis scene with quarterfinal appearances at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, Amritraj rose to prominence as a teenager in 1974 when he made it to the Junior Finals at Wimbledon. The next year his life would take a significant turn when he was recruited by Dr. Jerry Buss, the future owner of the Los Angeles Lakers, to join the fledgling L.A. Strings tennis franchise.

Part of the nascent World Team Tennis league, or WTT, Amritraj joined fellow teammates Chris Evert, Ilie Nastase and brother Vijay.

“It was the heyday of professional tennis,” remembers Amritraj. “The ATP (Assn. of Tennis Professionals) had just formed, and the money was starting to get much better and everybody thought they should play in a league like other sports. Billie Jean (King), Martina (Navratilova), (Bjorn) Borg, (John) McEnroe, (Jimmy) Connors all played in it.”

It was around this time that Amritraj got his first up-close look at some of the people he would be working with in the future. The “Fabulous” Forum, home of the Lakers at that time as well as Buss’ Strings, was a magnet for the Hollywood cognoscenti in much the same way the Staples Center is today.

“It was very exciting,” says Amritraj. “A lot of studio executives and stars used to come to the Forum to watch us play.”

And Amritraj didn’t disappoint his newfound fans either. His team would go on to win the WTT Championship in 1978, with Amritraj named the most valuable player. But by that time, Amritraj was already starting to swing toward Hollywood.

“I first met Ashok at one of the Carl Reiner Celebrity Tennis tournaments,” recalls director Garry Marshall. “He didn’t look like a producer back then, but he was outgoing and gregarious and a good competitor. I always related to athletes because I love sports.”

Amritraj would play another couple of years for his mentor Buss before he would finally retire from pro tennis.

“Jerry Buss was very important in my life, especially because I was so young when he brought me here,” says Amritraj. “He was this larger-than-life figure.”

In his more than nine years on the circuit, Amritraj traded shots with athletes who would form lasting legacies. “One of the highlights for me was when I played doubles with Ken Rosewall, one of tennis’ true living legends,” enthuses Amritraj. “I also played against Arthur Ashe and Roscoe Tanner, a lot of the older guys just going out and the younger guys just coming in.”

And even though Amritraj has branched out into a different profession now, tennis is still in his blood. His kids are said to be budding young court prodigies as well, but they could very well have a second career to fall back on, just as their father did.