Vijay Amritraj on Indians and Sports
August 14, 2012, 04:20 PM
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The role of role models in a country's sports success is a curious one. For example, it is regularly explained that Korean lady golfer Se Ri Pak's victory in the U.S. Women's Open in 1998 at Blackwolf Run set off South Korean dominance in women's golf. Presumably, that's true, but the thought, "I hope I grow up to be just like Se Ri Pak" doesn't strike me as hugely galvanizing. But I guess I'm missing something.

On the other hand, there are the role models without followers. When tennis on TV suddenly became wildly popular in the early 1970s, one of the prominent names was dashing Indian sportsman Vijay Amritraj. He never won a Grand Slam tournament, but he won some tour events, and he played many a hard-fought match in the Grand Slam against legends like Laver, Rosewall, Borg, Connors, and McEnroe. (Here are video highlights of his five set victory over Bjorn Borg in the 1974 U.S. Open.)

He had a long, fun career as captain of India's not-bad Davis Cup team, and was a regular on the international celebrity circuit, even appearing in a James Bond movie. He generally gave the impression that he was having a blast. I presumed there would be more like him in the future. Obviously, most Indians are too poor for sports, but the top 2 or 3 percent in India are as numerous as the entire population of Australia, so it hardly seemed unlikely 39 years ago that there would be more well-known Indian tennis players following Amritraj and his brother.

Recently, Amritraj said ESPN on why there aren't many prominent Indian athletes four decades after he made his mark: "Indians mature late physically and early mentally while people in the West mature early physically and late mentally."

I don't know how true that is, but it does fit with the career of Vijay Singh, the Indian golfer from Fiji, who pushed Tiger Woods out of #1 in 2004-2005, when in his 40s. Singh won more PGA tournaments after his 40th birthday than Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus combined.