Rohan: It’s Easier To Enter Group Two Than To Stay In It
HIS seventeen-year involvement with Sri Lanka’s Davis Cup team – fifteen as player and two as part of the team management– is why Rohan de Silva remains such a pragmatist.
He is currently the Non- playing Captain (read: courtside strategist and motivator) of our Davis Cup squad – ask him about our prospects in the tie against Hong Kong, three weeks away, and you won’t hear the sort of boastful predictions other officials tend to trumpet.
Having experienced first-hand the ups and downs of our Davis Cup fortunes for so long, he is careful to leave behind personal emotions at the doorstep before prospecting his team’s chances.
Even if there’s justifiable reason to assume success, he’s not the one to beat the drum on a coming triumph. Caution is his middle name.
For instance, whilst chief of SLTA Maxwell de Silva, prior to last month’s tie against Thailand, was going on airily about the capability of our young squad to spring a surprise on the favourities, the non-playing captain wasn’t prepared to share his chief’s bullishness; he flatly pronounced that our prospectsfor success was “far-fetched’’.
The SLTA chief might’ve been engaging in wishful thinking, but de Silva remained steadfastly in the world of realism; his’ was an educated assessment: As he told the Sunday Leader prior to the tie against
Thailand: “One of the Thai players has a current ATP ranking of 136 and two others are in the top 200 ofthe doubles rankings. And what do we have? – Not even the best two players from our last year’s squad.’’
As you know, the Thais won by a mile, taking an unbeatable 3/0 lead by the second morning, conceding walkovers in the reverse singles on day 3 and agreeing to put out their reserve players for exhibition matches.
From the outset, the non-playing captain was of the firm view that our chances of another year in Group Two was in the losers tie, i.e. the encounter against the losers of the Indonesia v. Hong Kongcontest.
“Realistically, our best chance of staying in the Group Two competition next year is in therelegation tie (v. Hong Kong, April 6-9) – provided we can field our best team,’’ said de Silva prior to the Thailand tie.
Some, of course, would want the non-playing captain to be a lot more positive – like, declaring his team would be aiming for Group 1 promotion rather than talk about survival in Group 2.
But his seventeen- year association with Davis Cup tennis has taught him that nursing lofty Group 1 ambitions in the immediate aftermath of Group 2 promotion is as realistic as fairytales becoming true.
The records support his view. After 12 long years spent in Group 3 and 4, Sri Lanka eventually earned promotion to Group 2 in 2009 – only to slip back to Group 3 in 2010.
In 2011 promotion to Group 2 was secured again –only to find ourselves now one loss away from demotion.“History has taught us that promotion to Group 2 is much easier than staying in Group 2,” said de Silva. “Why is that? It’s because we don’t have players playing in the professional circuit – and most other Group 2 countries have.
So when fulltime professional players take on virtual recreational players, you don’t need to be an expert to predict the outcome.’’This wisdom, however, doesn’t quite fully explain why within the space of three years, 2009 – 11, we managed Group 2 promotion twice – a commendable feat by any measurement.
That success however,wasn’t the product of the system. Few will deny that the Group Two promotions in 2009 and 2011 were singly due to the contributions of Harshana Godamanna.
And it has to be admitted that, but for some three years that he spent on the pro circuit whilst being tutored by the Swiss coach who shaped Roger Federer’s future in his formative years, Godamanna would not have been half as formidable as he was in ties of recent years.
So his absence from last month’s tie against Thailand pretty much sealed our fate even before the firstserve was hit. “When word got around that Godamanna wasn’t going to be available, it set off a train of withdrawals by other top players,’’ said the non-playing Captain.
“Basically, they reckoned that without Harshana, the tie was going to be a futile exercise and so opted out.’’As well, a sense of estrangement between the players and the administration (over the latter reneging on its promise of financial rewards should the team win promotion to Group 2 last year) meant that even
persuasion wasn’t going to change the players’ decision to stay out of the Thailand tie.
Not that the outcome of last month’s tie would’ve been any different were our frontline players onnational duty, but “ it would’ve run closer’’, and more importantly, would’ve prepared better the first-choice players for the Hong Kong tie in April in more ways than one .For one thing, the likes of Godamanna and co. bred on a diet of three-set matches would’ve experienced the severity of five sets, theprescribed duration of Group Two matches.
Another: the first tie would’ve revealed the areas in which the players need to make improvements for the second tie. Said briefly; being a part of the tie against Thailand would’ve helped plan better for Hong Kong.
All this is said on the assumption that Godamanna and co would be available for the April 6-9 tie in Hong Kong.
That assumption might be a tad too harsh on the tenderfoots, bar Dineskanthan, who took on the Thais. But frankly, redeploying them for national duty again would make it a case of selecting to make up the numbers, which was the case for last month’s tie anyway. The unavailability of our frontline players compelled the selectors to look for replacements among the junior ranks. The upshot: a squad with an average age of a shade over 18, and not one of them fitting the description of a prodigy.
You can’t throw immature teenagers into the deep end and hope to win Group Two ties.
So it was obvious that unless the services of Godamanna and co were procured we were going to fly out to Hong Kong waving the white flag of surrender. And it was to avoid such an eventuality that the SLTA handed ob of securing the services of the top players to the non-playing captain.
De Silva confirmed that discussions with Godamanna had succeeded, and the talented US-based playerwould be flying direct to Hong Kong.
Colombo-based Rajiv Rajapakse has already begun training with the squad. But Oshada Wijemanne, also a member of last year’s squad, was unavailable because of examinations.
“Harshana has been playing quite a bit of competitive tennis in the US, mostly in state tournaments. As
far as I am aware he hasn’t won titles, but he has advanced to the quarters and semis of a few tournaments – which is good news,” said Rohan de Silva. So how do our chances look now? There’s a slight crack in de Silva’s armour of pragmatism: “It has moved from hopeless to hope’’ … but then the chink closes quickly: “but Hong Kong has been in Group 2 team longer than us, and that means that not only must Godamanna deliver, so must Dineskanthan and Rajiv.’’ In other words, it’s going to be a long shot, but not unreachable.