The Sunday Leader

New Tennis Boss Issack Has His Work Cut Out

THE new chief of Sri Lanka tennis, Iqbal Bin Issack, might’ve wished he had inherited a more helpful legacy. Financially, the SLTA is in apparent want, as suggested by its inability to deliver on its promise of incentive payments to the promotion-winning 2011 Davis Cu p squad. So the player-administration relationship hasn’t been exactly what it should be.
The administration’s failure to attract sponsorship only went to compound SLTA’s financial woes. And it doesn’t say much for the administrators’ management capabilities that organizers of the last Colombo Championship put up Rs. 600, 000 as prize money while the prestigious 1884-founded National Championship managed barely half that amount. So it’s isn’t an exaggeration to say that the future of tennis appears to be frail,  albeit the country presently is in Group 2 of the Davis Cup competition,  for only the second time in nearly fifteen years.
Entrepreneur Issack, clearly, has his work cut out in restoring tennis’ good health. However, to lay all the blame for the present state of incertitude on the three-year tenure of the outgoing chief, Maxwell de Silva, is decidedly unfair. It should not be forgotten that de Silva himself was bequeathed a burdening legacy. The mismanagement of finances by the CEO appointed by de Silva’s predecessor, followed by the appointment of an interim committee for tennis, triggered the withdrawal of quite a few valuable sponsors. Among them was La Farge, whose generous commitment to wheelchair tennis development brought a stream of international successes; Aggreko, Dimo and Brandix as well withdrew their support.
If the pullout of many once-willing sponsors didn’t lead the SLTA to insolvency, it was due to de Silva. Through his good offices in the Sport Ministry, and as Secretary General of the NOC, de Silva obtained financial assistance, including from the Olympic Solidarity Fund, for specific projects and for keeping the game’s administration afloat.
“Soon after the interim committee took over (in 2008) was the time when the state of SLTA finances were most critical – the coffers were as good as empty,’’ said de Silva. “To make matters worse officials long associated with tennis were reluctant to communicate with the ministry – so I decided to deal with the ministry myself and was able to not only get financial assistance but also quicken a return of an elected administration to the SLTA.’’
De Silva, with some help from the then politically-influential SLTA chief, the late Janaka Bogollagama, indeed helped negotiate tennis through difficult and uncertain times. Once hailed as an administration deserving of emulation by other sport bodies, the politically inspired appointment of an interim committee left our little world of tennis in a state of flux. There was serious concern that more than a few long-devoted officials might walk away from administration. That didn’t happen, and for that the SLTA has de Silva to thank for: he ensured minimal ministerial interference while preserving the controls of administration in the hands of long-standing SLTA officials.
Commendable as de Silva’s efforts in retaining much of SLTA’s independence during some two years of government-supervised administration, his other contributions obviously was less satisfactory – which is why a majority of the SLTA membership were moved to bring a leadership change than return him uncontested, as they did in the past three elections.
De Silva’s curricular vitae don’t say that he was once a tennis player. So the membership had apparent misgivings about his leadership. “He (de Silva) doesn’t quite understand the players’ side of the story, their problems, which is probably why the promise of an incentive reward for Group Two promotion was disregarded. That breach of promise caused a distrust in the administration, not just among the Davis Cup squad but the players community,’’ said one official on condition of anonymity. “And Maxi’s outspoken ways didn’t endear him to many as well – and so a change of leadership was inevitable.’’
Sadly, de Silva refused to acknowledge his end’s imminence and decided to run for a fourth term –only to withdraw a day before the AGM, Friday, as, apparently, Sport Ministry approval was not forthcoming.
For whatever tennis background de Silva lacked, his successor has in ample measure. Issack was a player of quite some repute in the late 70s and 80s: he was a Davis Cup squad member; played in international tournaments in Thailand, Singapore and India, was ranked no.1 in the doubles and was thrice Junior National Doubles champion – an impressive list achievements in an era during which legends like Arjun Fernando, Umesh Wallooppillai and Frank Sebaratnam ruled the roost.
Since laying down his racquet in the 80s and immersing himself in the family business, he might’ve opted out of administration due time constraints, but he made time to serve as national selectors for eight straight years – reflecting his irresistible interest in players’ causes. “Being a one-time player and a long-time selector you can expect Issack to sympathize with players’ problems – something that is to be welcomed given that players now have little of faith in administrators,’’ says Suresh Subramaniam, whose record five-year administration was held up as an example that other sport bodies should duplicate. “He comes from a family with a long history in business and I am sure has all the persuasive ways of getting the job done well. It’s a virtue that SLTA management can do with.’’
He might’ve been a player of repute during his time and grown up in a business environment – and modern sport is pretty much a business – but the two don’t necessarily a good administrator make. In fact there are more than a few officials who haven’t indulged in the sport they presided over who have proved excellent administrators, a fine local example being Ana Punchihewa, a name you aren’t likely to find in any past score book but heads the list of Cricket Board officials of 1996, the year of our World Cup triumph.Even though Issack might not have served as an SLTA administrator, he has an impressive track record, as present president and long-time official of the Negombo Tennis Club. The NTC is no backwater club. It has a 128-year history, and though initially catering to the recreational needs of Negombo’s landed gentry and its citizens of importance, more recently it has taken on quite another role: to develop its youth – a role it has played with admirable success: Davis Cup squad member N S Nishangan, just 16 years, is a product of Negombo; so is Chehan Fernando, the national no.1 under-14 player last year and representative of the ITF Travelling Team. Kavindya de Silva, also a Negombo product, was member of Sri Lanka Junior Fed Cup team.
Under Issack’s presidency, the NTC built two hard courts, the only such courts in the outstations, a facility which earned it the rights to host the recent ITF international wheelchair tournament.That sort of record in tennis administration at a club level, however, doesn’t necessarily mean Issack can successfully preside over the destinies of Sri Lanka tennis over the next year. Having the right ingredients, after all, isn’t guarantee for a tasty dish. Issack has the ingredients, but time will tell what he has cooked up for Sri Lanka tennis.

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