Amid The Joy, Danger Of Skating On Thin Ice
- Godamanna Heroics Earn Sri Lanka Another Year’s Life In Group Two
NOTHING quite as cheery as this has happened to Sri Lanka tennis in a long time: It triumphed over Hong Kong, 3/2, and so extended life in Group Two of the Davis Cup competition for a second year – an achievement that had remained elusive since the ITF formulated nearly two decades ago the now-operative grouping system.
The archaic system of having two groups per continent was dispensed with in the aftermath of the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the subsequent splintering of the old USSR.
With an increasing number of new countries joining the Davis Cup fold, Group 3 and then four were incorporated into the competition – and consequently the quality of Group 2 opposition became a tad too much for Sri Lanka to cope with. Even so promotion to Group 2 remained a serious ambition.
That ambition was achieved in 2009 after some dozen years spent in the shallows of Group 3 and four – but the long waited elevation, alas, was short lived. We were demoted back to Group 3 the next year, and life in Group 2 was, if you like, only a one-night stand. In 2011, Sri Lanka battled back to Group 2, but it was hard to shed the notion that this could be another one-night stand. A routing at the hands of Thailand in the first of our two Group 2 ties, in February at home, didn’t do anything to change that negative perception.
So last weekend’s success was delightfully surprising, and gives Sri Lanka tennis something to cheer about. The success was remarkable, emerging as it did against an unpleasant backdrop.
It should not be forgotten that prior to the 2012 campaign there had been some acrimony between our top players and the SLTA over the administrators’ failure to pay the promised bonus for achieving Group 2 promotion last year. The issue stayed unresolved up until the tie against the Thais, but happily was resolved before the Hong Kong tie, which meant the top players absent for the February contest were available for the April encounter. If anything, the success went to prove that our top players are an indispensable lot yet, something which at least one senior SLTA official disputed prior to the February tie. All that is now water under the bridge and one hopes the newly elected Iqubal Bin Issack administration will foster a more fruitful relationship with the national players.
But let’s not go too far ahead into the future lest the glory of last weekend’s success gets overshadowed.
It was achieved under trying circumstances. The issue over unpaid bonus might have been resolved before the Hong Kong tie, but there were other serious odds to overcome.
For one, Hong Kong had home advantage, and to beat them in their own den didn’t seem to be in realms of the possible, given that we couldn’t beat them in our own backyard two years ago, in the Group 2 relegation tie. Sure, the inclusion of US-based Harshana Godamanna and veteran Rajiv Rajapakse presented a far stronger team than the bunch rookies put out for the tie against the Thais.
But, with the seasoned duo missing out the tie against Thailand, there were some reservations about their ability to withstand the intensity of a Davis Cup relegation battle.
After all, there was no credible evidence that the tennis Godamanna was playing in the US was of a quality befitting of Davis Cup representation.
Colombo-based Rajapakse’s fitness was in question as he joined the national squad training just about a month before the Hong Kong tie.
History, too, favoured Hong Kong, whose only loss to Sri Lanka was way back in 1983, in Colombo. “With Arjun Fernando, Frank Sebaratnam and (the late) Arjan Perera in the team, overcoming Hong Kong wasn’t a far-fetched prospect– and overcome we did. Not before or after (1983) have we won against Hong Kong,’’ said Suresh Subramaniam, a member of the 1983 squad and the National Men’s Doubles champion of that year. “I wouldn’t say the prospects of the current team looked as hopeful as that of the 1983 – which makes their success (last week end) all the more creditable. You have to say defeating Hong Kong after 29 years is a significant milestone.”
As if coping with these pre-tie odds weren’t gnawing enough, a torrential downpour in Hong Kong washed out the first day’s play – which meant the two singles of day 1 as well as the doubles were crammed into day 2.
“It was 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. work day – and to have got through that long day, and win, speaks of the depth of players’ commitment and determination. It was a performance to be proud of,” said Rohan de Silva, the non-playing captain.
So let’s first place on record the results: Sri Lanka won 3 matches to two; Godamanna won both his singles matches and partnered Rajapakse in the crucial doubles triumph.
Dineshkanthan lost both his singles, but the youngster was far from disgraced, taking Hong Kong’s no.1, Jonathan Yu, US-born and one-timed ranked 525 in the world, to four sets.
No amount of praise, however, will do justice to Godamanna’s role in the triumph. Apart from being responsible for all of Sri Lanka’s three wins, his commitment to his country’s tennis was admirable. Being based in the US it would’ve been understandable had he chose to opt out of the tie, as other US-based Sri Lankan players have routinely done in the past. It speaks much for the young man’s character that he chose to fly half way round the world to be in Hong Kong a day before the tie, strain every sinew on court for some 12 hours and then fly back to New York not many hours after successfully completing the job for his country.
By the time he entered the court for his second singles match on day 3, Godamanna had toiled for some eight hours the previous day.
It wasn’t the sort of labour he might’ve wanted to endure a day before taking on Hong Kong’s no.1, Yu, an old pro at 29. The match was crucial; with Sri Lanka holding a 2/1 lead, a win here would’ve clinched the tie. For Hong Kong it was a chance to pull the chestnuts from the fire.
The clash of the no.1s promised a no quarter asked and none given battle, and that’s exactly what it was. The first set was decided after a 24-point tie-breaker, which Godamanna clinched 7/6 (13/11). The dogged Yu, however, wasn’t the one to lie down and die. Although troubled by a sore back, Yu battled back to make it all square at the end fourth set. But Godamanna had sacrificed too much to let anything come between him and glory: He broke Yu’s serve in the first game of the deciding set, held all of his own serves and wrapped up a 7/6 (13-11) 5/7, 6/0, 5/7, 6/3 victory, lasting nearly four hours.
If Godamanna was the hero on the court, the off court hero surely was Rohan de Silva, the non-playing captain. Apart from the duties of a non-playing captain (which in de Silva’s case combined the responsibilities of a manager and a coach), he was given the responsibility of securing the services of Godamanna, not the easiest of tasks given the uneasy player-establishment relationship.
“I am not sure if anyone other than Rohan could’ve talked Harshana into playing (in Hong Kong). The strained relationship between the players and the SLTA obviously was a hindrance.
But because of Rohan’s association as Technical advisor to the Davis Cup squad over the past few years as well as being a one-time Davis Cup team mate of Harshana, a healthy relationship between the two had been established– and that in the end was what secured Harshana’s services,’’ said chief selectors, Suresh Subramaniam. “I believe having Rohan as non-playing captain long term will be extremely helpful to our future campaigns.’’
Presently though, Sri Lanka tennis is in a world of euphoria, a world that’s as durable as a bubble in a glass of champagne. A year will go by swiftly, and soon the battle to survive in Group Two will be upon us again. If anything the 2013 challenge appears to be tougher, with India, one-time in the World Group, a possible opponent, should they lose to New Zealand in the Group 1 relegation tie. Pakistan, Thailand, Lebanon and Chinese-Taipei are also in next year’s Group 2 line up, along with two promotions from Group 3.
Whilst acknowledging the indispensability of Godamanna, it had to be said that dependence on only one player is really a skate on thin ice. “It is necessary that we have a second singles player who can also bring us a win, but unfortunately we haven’t had one for the past few years.
Dineshkanthan has the makings but he needs more experience,” said Subramaniam. “Oshada (Wijemanne), with his US experience, looks good material. He is back in Sri Lanka and the SLTA ought to get him interested in next year’s Davis Cup.’’
It is nice that the 2013 campaign is being spoken of so early, which wasn’t the case after the Group 2 promotion in 2009.
There was then a feeling that the ultimate had been achieved, a sense of contentment that induced oars to be dropped. That life in Group Two is not forever was disregarded; all that mattered was the ultimate was achieved.
Last weekend’s renewal of our Group Two status is proof that life at a higher plain doesn’t have to be a one night stand.