Issack Aims To Raise The Importance Of The Player
PLEDGING commitment to grassroots development so as to unlock the gates of international sport to long-impoverished village athletes is the popular opening line of most newly-elected chiefs of sport. It’s a message that might help curry favour with politicians, so, there’s no harm really in throwing in the clichéd line. After all, answerability to promises unfulfilled isn’t a requirement in local sport administration. So at felicitations welcoming sport’s new bosses, stirring words flow from hearts seemingly aching for the poor deprived rural athletes, and applause rent the air – but sport’s wretched lot stay mired in the backwoods.
It was, thus, refreshing to hear the new chief of Sri Lanka tennis, Iqbal Bin Issack, speak a different opening line: “I believe it’s time we eased this preponderance on grassroots development and instead give higher priority to the specific task of making new champions.”
He acknowledges that making champions might be a part of development, but insists there’s a fine line between the two. “Producing champions might come under the umbrella of development, but the job of making champions is quite another thing– you can’t make a champion through broad-based development alone,’’ says Issack, Davis Cup squad member of the late 70s, the time the former Royalist was also no.1 ranked doubles player. “Most big names in world tennis initially emerged from broad-based development, after which must follow specific programs tailored to convert potential champions into real champions. It is this bridge that the Federers, Nadals and Djokovics crossed on their way to the top.”
Of course, as the big names gain greater glory and the accompanying riches, they’re able to hire their own private coaches – a subliminal state that Sri Lanka tennis won’t attain anytime during Issack’s term, nor is that his intention. To cut a long story short: the new chief wants to hasten the emergence of new champions, but adds “not at the expense of the ongoing developmental work”.
“It would be counterproductive to divert resources allotted to grassroots development to specific programs designed to produce champions. Whilst the new make-the-champions scheme functions, the present junior and outstation development programs will continue as before,’’ says Issack. “The specifics of the new program are to be soon worked out, hopefully, by a committee of coaches, but obviously the final plan will have to be one that dovetails into the existing system.”
It’s not difficult to understand the immediate reason for the new tennis chief’s impatience to make champions. A national selector in the eight years leading up to his election as SLTA President last March, he’s only too mindful that, but for the sole performance of Harshana Godamanna our tennis would be wallowing yet in the shallows of Group 3 or 4 of the Davis Cup competition– not enjoying the heights of Group 2, a promotion that was gained in 2011, and retained last month; Godamanna contributing all three wins in our 3/2 triumph over Hong Kong.
In 2009, too, it was Godamanna who almost single-handedly won us promotion to Group 2, a promotion gained after 12 years of trying, which, alas, lasted for only a year: we were demoted back to Group 3 in 2010. “Sri Lanka tennis is fortunate that it has a champion like Godamanna, but whilst we have prospered tremendously from dependence on him, continuing to rely on a single player is really having all our eggs in one basket. Other eggs have to be hatched – we’ll have to invest in a few other potential champions if we are to further our Davis Cup ambitions,” says Issack, “we’ll feel more secure if we have another player capable of winning a Davis Cup singles match and so ease the pressure on Harshana. Hopefully we’ll discover a second Godamanna before we defend our Group 2 status next year. That will be one of our two top priorities during my first term. The other is to win a few SAF medals next year.”
Fortunately, the first step towards achieving those two goals has already been taken by the previous regime of Maxwell de Silva: it successfully negotiated with the Sport Ministry to procure the services of a foreign coach. The ministry has agreed to foot the coach’s salary bill of US$2,000 per month – from the budget set aside for preparing our athletes for the next February SAF Games in New Delhi.
“(Former SLTA president) Maxwell (de Silva) deserves credit for obtaining ministry funds for an overseas coach, and we have decided on a Syrian for the job. He had the best credentials – an ITF level 3 coaching certificate and who was in the top 300 of the ATP rankings during his playing days,” said Issack. “He should begin work sometime next month, and though coaching of the national pool and the monitoring of their progress will take much of his time, he’ll also devote time to coach our coaches.”
Issack, a top player during his time, is aware that proper coaching alone doesn’t make champions. “All the coaching in the world won’t count for much if a player hasn’t sufficient international competition behind him. The more economically fortunate players can buy their International experience. After all, pursuing tennis ambitions is a costly business – as ranking points are essential to further ambitions, and those points are earned in overseas prize-money tournaments,’’ said Issack
“For every player who can afford to pay their way to play in overseas international competitions, there must be a hundred who can’t, and sooner rather than later they are lost to the game,” says Issack. “Ideally we should be hosting ITF prize-money tournaments, and in fact did, hosting two-three US$10, 000 tournaments each year some five-six years ago when Suresh (Subaramanaim) was president. For more reasons than one those tournaments were dropped from our events calendar, and the biggest losers were those players who can’t afford to play in ITF tournaments overseas.”
He admits that, given the impoverished state of SLTA’s finances, all the schemes which he so passionately speaks about might seem a tad too ambitious. “You have to remember that not many years ago tennis enjoyed generous sponsorship support, including from such big corporate names as Benz, LaFarge, Agreeko, Mirinda, Brandix and Janashkathi. They were faithful backers of Sri Lanka tennis, and I don’t exactly know why they all withdrew over the past four-five years,” said Issack. “I can only guess that our PR with those sponsors wasn’t what it should’ve been, but that’s something the present committee is confident it can rectify. We already have found a sponsor willing to invest half-million rupees in the Nationals. Given that we have some exciting plans for the future, I am confident that we’ll find the sponsors to fund those plans.”
The whole exercise of his stewardship is “to do everything that’s possible for the players; to make them feel they matter the most.”
“Unfortunately, players haven’t been given the attention they deserve. For instance, the tremendous performance of our players against Hong Kong (in April) went virtually unrecognized. Some sort of official event to felicitate the players ought to have been held –something we hope to do when Harshana returns to the country (from the US) in June,” said Issack. “Little things like the awarding of Sri Lanka colours to national representatives mean a lot to the players, especially the juniors. For some reason the awarding of national colours hasn’t happened for some time. What we want to do is to take an inventory of national players who weren’t awarded Lion crests and award them it. It will be nice if we can make a practice of awarding colours ceremonially so as to lift the importance of the crest– and that’s a practice we’d like to start.”
His heart clearly aches for the players – not for the clichéd reasons, though. Better times seem to be in store for the players.