Grace, said Akhtar Ali, when asked about the one abiding quality of Rajmata Gayatri Devi, his mixed doubles partner once upon a time. May not be a very original comment that but heartfelt it sure was.
“Whatever I am is because of her. Everybody needs a bit of luck and she was my slice of good fortune. And to think I almost never met her,” Ali told HT on Saturday.
“It was in 1955 and I was in New Delhi, scheduled to go to Jaipur for a tournament I wasn't keen on. Miss Laura Woodbridge, my mixed doubles partner, insisted that I do,” said the man who played and coached India, Belgium and was Vijay Amritraj's travelling coach. Fifty-four years after his first visit, Ali still remembers the parties there. “At one them, she came to our table and asked 'Mr Akhtar Ali — that's what she always called me except once when during the Emergency she referred to me as Akhtar in a letter from jail — are you going to the junior Wimbledon this year'.
“My English wasn't very good then and I said I couldn't afford it. Two days later she announced I would be taken at her expense,” Ali said.
“I lost in the semifinals of the junior Wimbledon in 1955 and as I cried on court, the Maharani and Maharaja of Jaipur came to me and said if I did well, I would again be sent next year. We were back in 1956 when I qualified for the senior Wimbledon, won a round. I invited her for tea at the Players' Lounge and she made me member of Queen's for 10 years.”
Ali said he and Gayatri Devi played tournaments in England and in the third round of a meet, she insisted they win in straight sets. “She said she had a cocktail to attend and when I told her there was enough time, she said the cocktail was in Paris!