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The captain of India's Davis Cup team is looking especially lovely just now: hot-chocolate foundation, mint-green eye shadow, a little mascara, Malibu Magic moisturizer, outrageously furry eyelashes and go-to-hell scarlet lipstick.
Vijay Amritraj, all 6'3�" of him, has been transformed into a drag queen for NBC's new action comedy, The Last Precinct. A drag queen, country and western fans, is not necessarily the sweetheart of the time trials at the Indianapolis 500. And Amritraj, a series regular, is a bit uncomfortable with the role. "Oh, my god!" he says, peering into a makeup mirror. "I've just got to look at this professionally."
Amritraj, who is one of the most revered athletes in India, plays Shivaramanbhai Poonchwalla, an exchange cop from Calcutta Vice in TV-land's Metropolitan Police. In a gag that was worn-out when Al Jolson sang My Mammy, the dumb American cops who can't pronounce Poonchwalla's name call him Alphabet. Amritraj, who was James Bond's sidekick in Octopussy, plays a decoy hooker in this episode. A two-bit hood falls for Alphabet, who then must reluctantly perform The Dance of the Trembling Wildflower.
Surrounded by enough cosmetics to resurrect Gloria Swanson from Sunset Boulevard, Amritraj prowls the dressing room, awaiting his call. "A good day on the set is like a rainy day at Wimbledon," he says. Amritraj ought to know. He's been there more than a dozen times, reaching the quarterfinals in 1973 and '81 and the final 16 last year after upsetting Yannick Noah on Centre Court. On this afternoon, he rehearses his big line in a fluted voice that slips on and off like a loose bra strap: "In my family, men are men, except for my distant cousin Najib the Rhythmic, of whom no one ever speaks."
In his real-life family, Vijay has two brothers, Anand and Ashok, who once were also world-class tennis players. The three were the first Indians ever to earn a living from pro tennis. Even today, in a nation of 730 million, just one other tennis player can make that claim—Vijay's Davis Cup teammate, Ramesh Krishnan. Vijay is the only Amritraj who still plays serious singles. In fact, on a given day he can beat anyone, as John McEnroe found out in August of 1984 at the ATP Championship in Cincinnati. Anand is his occasional doubles partner, while Ashok is his partner in a film company.
Vijay, who is 32, plays Alphabet like the wide-eyed innocent he was when he arrived in the U.S. with the pro tour in 1972. "I couldn't believe that one person would occupy a car all by himself," he says. "Where I'm from, you sometimes see five in the front seat! I'd never been to a drive-in movie or a drive-in fast-food restaurant."
He grew up on his parents' small estate in the southern city of Madras. Robert Amritraj was a railroad official, and Maggie ran a packaging plant in the family's backyard. Vijay spent much of his childhood in hospitals, a victim of mysterious high fevers. His mother attended school in his place and brought her class notes to his bedside. "My parents never made a mistake in the way they ran my life," he says. "Any child with average talents would have gotten at least as far as I have."
Vijay, considered one of the few remaining sportsmen in tennis, is being far too modest. It takes more than average talent to last 14 years on the pro circuit. And make the Top 25 on the earnings list four years running. And lead your country to the Davis Cup finals, as Vijay did in 1974. Actually, he once preferred badminton, but when he saw how much Anand enjoyed tennis, he switched. He modeled his game after that of Pancho Gonzales, and indeed there are moments when, at his elegant best, his style resembles his idol's.
Vijay and his brothers played a game called "Hawaii Five-0" when they were kids; he was also quite an 007 devotee. He used to watch Bond films at the Sapphire Theatre in downtown Madras, sometimes waiting weeks for a ticket. "When Octopussy came out three years ago," says Vijay, "all of a sudden there was a new dimension to my notoriety." He was picked for the film after a producer saw him in a postmatch TV interview and was given a screen test between the second and third rounds at Wimbledon. Vijay went bust in the tournament but did better in the movie, when he decked a kukri-wielding Gurkha with his racket. He eventually got done in by a baddie brandishing a nasty twin-bladed gizmo.
For some 10 of the years he was on the tour, Amritraj commuted between Madras and Los Angeles. As he approached his 30th birthday, he decided it was time to get married. "I told my parents I would like to wed an Indian girl," he says. "I'd been in the States a long time, but my values, principles and way of thinking had always been totally Indian."