The Sunday Leader

Sri Lanka Choose Clay For Nz Davis Cup Tie

By T.M.K Samat

Sri Lanka is to play its opening 2010 Group Two Davis Cup tennis tie on clay courts next year, and not as was expected, on the recently-laid hard courts.
In 2006 the SLTA invested Rs. 2.5m. to convert the surface of six of the 14 courts at Green Path to hard, just so that tournaments like the Davis Cup could be played on them. But, ironically, the first chance to host a Davis Cup tie on the new courts has been rejected – with nary a dissenting voice heard.

The SLTA top brass, selectors and the top players themselves were of one mind that the March 5-7 Davis Cup tie with New Zealand should be played on the slow clay as opposed to the faster hard courts.

“The accepted belief was the tie would be on hard courts until the chairman of selectors (Suresh Subramaniam) revealed a historical fact we weren’t aware of:  New Zealand has played six Davis Cup ties on clay – and lost all of them,’’ said SLTA President Maxwell de Silva. “Obviously, the New Zealanders are less comfortable playing on the slower clay surface, and we’ll be missing a trick if we don’t choose a surface on which there’s a chance that we might put them under greater pressure.”

New Zealand tennis historically has been in quite another league. Where Sri Lanka, over the last nine years, has been wallowing in the shallows of Group 3 and 4 over, the Kiwis have long slugged it out in Group 1 and 2 with the likes of India, South Africa, Japan the Philippines and Indonesia, countries with ambitions to play in the World Group, alongside the likes of US, Russia and the other big guns of tennis.
“It won’t be wrong to say that New Zealand is the strongest Group 2 (Asia/Oceania) team and would probably be the top seed. They may have been in Group 1 (for the 2010 competition) had they not conceded the Group Two Final last year to the Philippines,’’ said Rajiv Rajapakse, second singles players in Sri Lanka’s promotion- winning 2009 Davis Cup team.

Huge Advantage

New Zealand tennis also boasts of a Wimbledon finalist: Chris Lewis, who was beaten by John McEnroe in an early-80s final.

SLTA officials, while conceding the Kiwis’ superior Davis Cup pedigree, however, think there’s no reason why our players ought to be overawed by the visitors’ reputation. “For a start the players shouldn’t forget we are a Group 2 team same as they – that way you discount whatever history might say,’’ says President de Silva, “as well, playing them in our own backyard is a huge advantage – and if Godamanna, Rajapakse and co. can set their minds on making use of home advantage, it is possible we can cause the Kiwis some concern – and then who knows what might happen.’’

De Silva’s thought might seem wishful thinking, but it isn’t fantasy either. It shouldn’t be forgotten that the New Zealanders are accustomed to playing in the near-Frigidaire conditions of 9-20 centigrade, so that asking them to play in Colombo in the 10 a.m. March heat is, well… they’ll have to be excused should they inquire from the umpire if the oven door in the SLTA kitchen has been left open.
Long hours on court in sultry Colombo aren’t a prospect that will please men from the cold lands, and it’s to subject them to just that sort of discomfiture is why the SLTA chose to take the tie to the less glamorous clay courts, which, in SLTA-talk is referred to as downstairs, being situated on lower ground at back of the hard courts.

“Any tennis player who’s played on the two kinds of courts will tell you that to score points on the slow-paced clay courts take longer than the quicker hard surfaces – probably it takes 15-20 shots to score on clay and 4-6 shots on hard. What this means is that the Kiwis are going to be kept a lot longer on clay courts than on hard – and in high-30 temperatures that’s not going to be fun,’’ said President de Silva. “Obviously, the fitness level of our players would have to be at peak – which is why the players have already got into fitness training.’’

Clay courts neglected

Since the birth of the hard courts, the clay courts have become SLTA’s orphans – neglected to a point of decay. “The clay courts aren’t in the best of condition which means a complete makeover will have to be done on two courts for the tie (one court for matches and the other for practice as required by Davis Cup rules). Both courts will have to be re-laid with a top dressing of ant-hill soil,’’ says President de Silva, “as well, temporary wooden stands will have to be erected along the flanks of match court. The whole job of dressing up the old clay courts for the event is going to cost about Rs.750, 000.’’

The Sport Ministry has pledged Rs. 3m. for the Davis Cup campaign. “The Ministry’s contribution is generous, but it won’t meet all our expenses. Preparation of the players for the tie alone is going to cost Rs. 3m; paying for the players’ overseas exposure itself is going to be a tidy sum. Obviously, the balance required funds will to be solicited from sponsors,’’ said de Silva.

Sri Lanka earned Group Two promotion last April after finishing on top of the eight-nation Group Three tournament in Damascus, Syria. After nine years in Group 3 and 4, the SLTA obviously will want to extend its Group Two status beyond just a year. For that Sri Lanka will have to win at least one of their two 2010 ties – v. New Zealand in March and the July/or August tie v. the winners/or losers of the Pakistan v. Hong Kong encounter. The second tie, too, is to be staged in Colombo.

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