Akhtar Ali, India’s legendary tennis coach, passes away in Kolkata

Published : February 07, 2021 22:48 IST

Akhtar Ali (centre), coach, with members of the junior tennis team, in Calcutta in May 1966. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Indian tennis lost one of its most beloved and towering figures with the passing away of Akhtar Ali. The former Indian tennis player and legendary coach, who had trained several generations of stars of the country, passed away in the early hours of February 7 in Kolkata after a prolonged illness. He was 81 and is survived by his son, former tennis ace Zeeshan Ali, and two daughters.

Though as a player he was overshadowed by the great figures of Ramanathan Krishnan, Jaidip Mukerjea and Premjit Lal, as a coach he was, as Jaidip himself put it, “the greatest that Indian tennis ever produced”. Born on July 5, 1939, Akhtar came up the hard way, and by sheer dint of merit emerged as one of the pioneering figures of Indian tennis. In 1955, he got to the semifinals of the Wimbledon Juniors, and from 1958 onward he represented India in eight Davis Cup ties. He also played in the Wimbledon and French Open grand slams. But Akhtar’s real legacy was as a coach. He was the coach of the Indian national tennis team from 1966 till 1993, and had guided India to two Davis Cup finals (1966 and 1974). He was conferred the Arjuna Award in 2000 for lifetime contribution to tennis.

Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee posted on social media: “Saddened to hear about the passing of Akhtar Ali, a true tennis legend. ‘Akhtar Sir' coached many of India’s tennis champions. We conferred Bengal’s highest sporting award on him in 2015. I was fortunate to always receive his warm affection. Condolences to his family and admirers”. Prime Minister Narendra Modi also expressed his grief at the passing away of the great tennis coach.

Indian tennis legend Jaidip Mukerjea, who was Akhtar’s old friend and Davis Cup team mate, felt that Akhtar Ali should be given the Dronacharya Award posthumously for his contribution as a coach. “He has coached right from Vijay Amritraj to Ramesh Krishnan to Leander Paes. I would say he has coached around 15 Davis Cup players, which is a phenomenal record. He even helped me, Ramanathan Krishnan and Premjit Lal. I don’t know why he never got the Dronacharya Award. I hope they give it to him posthumously. He was India’s Harry Hopman (legendary Australian tennis coach),” Mukerjea told Frontline. Akhtar himself was coached by Hopman for a brief period.

According to Jaidip Mukerjea, what set Akhtar apart from the others as a coach was the way he could motivate his players and understand their weaknesses. “He understood what was best for the player — whether the grip needed to be changed, whether one was throwing the ball a bit too much to the right or to the left. He made a study of all the strengths and weaknesses of his players. Nowadays it is easy to do with a computer, but in our days it was not like that,” said Mukerjea. Akhtar was also passionate about promoting the game and coaching players at the grass roots level.

Reacting to Akhtar’s death, Vijay Amritraj posted on social media: “Aktar Ali was terrific as a coach both when I was a junior as well as coach of our India Davis Cup team. Always pushed hard n kept the team relaxed. He did great service to Indian Tennis. RIP dear Aktar. Sincere condolences to Zeeshan n his lovely family.” Somdev Devvarman tweeted: “One of the first times I threw up during practice was with Akhtar sir at the South club in the summer of 1999. He always gave it his best and taught us to do the same. RIP Akhtar Ali, legend of Indian tennis”.

An emotional Jaidip Mukerjea, reminiscing about his old friend, remembered Akhtar as a generous, large-hearted human being. He told Frontline: “I have known him for the last 60 years. When I went to play Wimbledon Juniors in 1958, he was already playing the circuit there, and he showed me the ropes. In Kolkata, he, Premjit Lal and I always hung out together in the South Club (Calcutta’s famous tennis club). We were like brothers.”