Chandigarh, February 7
Akhtar Ali, who died at age 81 today due to multiple health problems, reached the semifinals of Junior Wimbledon in 1955 and seemed to be destined for great achievements on the court. But though he played in eight Davis Cup ties between 1958 and 1964, he never quite made it as a singles player — perhaps, as the legendary Ramanathan Krishnan suggested in a recent book, his “lack of height affected his tennis”.
However, Akhtar made his mark as a great coach and became a legend in his own lifetime, influencing generations of Indian tennis players.
“Akhtar Ali was terrific as a coach both when I was a junior as well as coach of our India Davis Cup team,” Vijay Amritraj posted on social media today. “Always pushed hard and kept the team relaxed. He did great service to Indian tennis.”
He was a fantastic coach; he was a good player also. But his coaching achievements are much better. He has coached top players like Ramanathan Krishnan, Ramesh Krishnan, myself, Vijay Amritraj, and Leander Paes, all of them. —Jaidip Mukerjea
Amritraj was only 13 when he was spotted by Akhtar at a training camp in Shillong, and among those he also coached at different points were Anand Amritraj, Ramesh Krishnan and Leander Paes. His advice and influence extended right to the likes of Somdev Devvarman and Sania Mirza, apart from countless lesser-known players.
Akhtar, born in 1939, represented India in eight Davis Cup ties between 1958 and 1964, against Pakistan, Malaysia, Iran, Mexico, Japan and Monaco. In Davis Cup, his singles win/loss record was 5/2, while it was 4/0 in doubles. He figured in teams that had the likes of Ramanathan Krishnan, Naresh Kumar, Premjit Lall and Jaidip Mukerjea.
He also figured in Wimbledon and French Open Grand Slam events.
His last ATP Tour match was against Vijay Amritraj in a claycourt tournament in Mumbai in 1974, Amritraj winning 6-3 6-3.
Akhtar, who won the national squash championship in 1968, turned to coaching when his playing career ended. Akhtar got coaching certification from the National Institute of Sport (Patiala), International Tennis Federation and the United States Professional Tennis Registry.
His coaching stints with the national team lasted from 1966 to 1993. During this time, the Indian team reached the Davis Cup finals twice, in 1966 and 1974.
Akhtar also coached the national teams of Malaysia (1968-70, 1991-93) and Belgium (1980-84).
Akhtar was conferred with the Arjuna Award in 2000 for his lifetime contribution to tennis. Akhtar was a popular figure in the world of tennis. Ramesh Krishnan writes in A Touch of Tennis: “Another day it was the great Pancho Gonzalez who Akhtar dragged onto court to take a look at me. The great man gave me a serving lesson.”
According to sources in Akhtar’s family, the former coach was taken to a Kolkata hospital two weeks ago where doctors found a lump in his chest and also prostate cancer. He was already suffering from dementia and Parkinson’s disease. — TNS