The Sunday Leader

Tennis Nationals: Young Guns Knock On Champs’ Doors

ONLY 14 AND NEARLY A CHAMP: Nethmie Waduge, two junior titles and women’s singles runner up, receives her prize from Iqbal Bin Issack, SLTA President. and ON THE RISE: Sharmal Dissanayake, defeated a Davis Cup squad member and took a set off the National champion.

AS awards ceremonies go, the one staged at the conclusion of the 97th. National Tennis Championships, Sunday, lacked none of the customary frills.
The stage was pitched on the sun-lit court facing the clubhouse, to where dancing damsels and drummers led chief guest, Aslam Omar, Brandix director, and sponsor Airtel’s Theodore Gunasekera, head of supply chain management of the mobile phone giant.
The prize list was a few feet long, including as it did winners, semifinalists on, of the Junior and Wheelchair National championships too – and so, lest monotony bred boredom, the calling of the prize winners was halted for awhile – and the dancing damsels skipped on court again to nimbly trip to a foot-tapping Latin-American ditty.
“The Nationals is our most prestigious tournament, and it’s only natural the closing ceremony should befit the importance of the event,” said Iqbal Bin Issack, SLTA President.
“So we hired a professional
team of dancers and musicians from Negombo to put on a show.” The show was sassy, different to ones of past years, which were semi-military, performed as they were by servicemen.
It was easy, however, to be cynical about the Sunday show. The flavour might’ve been different, but many of the faces visiting the prize table were pretty much the same as those seen in the years before: both the men’s and women’s singles champions remained unchanged, Dineshkanthan Thangarajah retaining the men’s title for a second year and Amritha Muttiah emerging the women’s champion for a fourth straight year.
Then there was the familiar figure of veteran Shalini de Silva on hand to receive the women’s open doubles prize, just as she had for much of the past two decades, winning one National title or other.
If new national champions are metric of development then it didn’t help that Thangarajah won all three of the men’s open titles and Muttiah took two of three women’s titles.
So from a development perspective, the 2012 National Championships wasn’t something to make a song and dance about. Right? Wrong.
Behind the prize winners list of the senior Nationals, there was ample evidence to suggest a hopeful future for Sri Lanka tennis. You won’t find Sharmal Dissanayake’s name in the list of winners and runners up of open events, but the Royal College student is one you’re likely to hear about in the future.
Dissanayake secured a triple, winning the under-16 singles and doubles, as well as the under-18 singles.
But it’s not dominance of the junior events that make him the apparent poster boy for Sri Lanka tennis development. The 15-year old took a set off National champion Thangarajah in the men’s singles semifinals, and was on set-point in the third; had he won the next point, he would’ve been 2/1 up, a far
more optimistic situation to be in approaching the fourth set than from 1/2 down.
“He lost in four sets, but it was within his capabilities to take Dinesh (kanthan) the full distance. The only reason why he failed and Dinesh succeeded was experience at the top level – Dinesh has loads of it and Sharmal, little of it,” said Ravi Perera, Tournament Committee Chairman and Secretary SLTA.
Prior to his semifinal meeting with the champion, Dissanayake overcame 2012 Davis Cup squad member Nishangan Nadarajah. “Obviously, Sharmal’s performances in the Nationals make him a contender for a place in the 2013 Davis Cup squad.
He’s an outstanding prospect for the future,” said Rohan de Silva, non-playing Davis Cup captain. “It’s a healthy sign that we’ll have more than a few promising juniors to choose from for next year’s squad.’’
Emerging champions issued notice on the established seniors in the women’s events as well – none bolder than the one served by Nethmie Waduge, whose success story was pretty much a carbon of Sharmal Dissanayake’s.
The 14-year old Visakahian won the under-14 and under-16 Girls’ Singles titles, but, like Dissanayake, her biggest impact was made in the open women’s singles. She ousted the top seed Shankari Thayakaran in the semifinals before conceding the final to Amritha Muttiah.
By any measure a tender 14-year finishing National women’s singles runner up is remarkable, but that success, however, doesn’t quite capture the full magnitude of the schoolgirl’s feat.
You have to go back to the results of the Colombo Championships in July for a more insightful understanding of Waduge’s achievement – and potential. Thayakaran, who the 14-year Visakahian vanquished last week, had defeated four-time National singles champion Muttiah in the Colombo Championships – so it’s a logical assumption that little Waduge isn’t too far away from the national title.
Form, though, is such a fickle thing that performances in one tournament can hardly be a reliable forecast of the future. But, because National titles are the most sought after and aspirants’ commitment to the event more earnest than for any other local competition, it is fair to say that performances at the
Nationals, more than any other competition, is a better indicator of the future.  “There’s no bigger title to be had than a national title – it makes you no.1 in the country, and that’s something players will give their all for,” says Iqbal Bin Issack, SLTA president. “So the competition is always intense, and each National tells you which way the development graph is heading.”
The 2012 graph is headed north – and not only because of the immense promise shown by juniors Dissanayake and Waduge. The duo might look potential champions, but then the careers of the reigning champs are far from over.
And so, it’s not as if vacant thrones await the rising stars. Thangarajah, the men’s champion, is just 21 and has only just begun his foray into the international circuit. Apart from being no.1 in the local rankings, he is currently the second singles player in the country’s Davis Cup squad, behind US-based Harshana Godamanna.
Thangarajah looks the apparent successor to Godamanna, and he obviously won’t want any pretenders to stand in his way. Then there’s Nishangan Nadaraja, a member of the Davis Cup squad last year.
He might not have enjoyed the same degree of success as Dissanayake at the Nationals, but the 16-year old Peterite has had his triumphs over the Royalist, notably in the 2011 Nationals when he won a grueling three-hour battle over Dissanayake in the under-16 boys’ final.
So quite some hectic duels between Thangarajah, Dissanayake and Nadaraja, not to mention one-time Davis Cup squad members, Amresh Jayawickrema, Shanka Athukorale and Vimuktha de Alwis, loom in the months ahead, and just who might win selection to the Davis Cup squad next February/March is anybody’s guess.
The story is pretty much the same with the women tennis too. 14-year Waduge might’ve beaten top seed Thayakaran, 17, in the Nationals, and Thayakaran herself may have overcome champion Muttiah, the month before, but the 20-year old champion’s career is yet blossoming. All of which points to some
interesting battles for supremacy among the women players as well.
That more than a few juniors are challenging the established champions must surely warm the cockles of the hearts of tennis followers. But it has to be said that the emergence of fresh talent in their numbers at the top, at the same time, is not a new phenomenon.
The SLTA’s junior development program which was initiated some 15 years ago (and, sadly, derailed by the previous committee), periodically, threw up a crop of promising youngsters.
The most impressive batch was the one led by Franklin Emmanuel, who in 2002, aged 14, became the youngest ever National Singles champion. He was one of many
youngsters who emerged to the forefront then; among the others, were Harshana Godamanna, Amrith Rupasinghe, Oshada Wijemanne and P S Nishendran; bar Nishendran, the other four, in different years, were National Singles champions as well as Davis Cup representatives.
The more recent products of the junior development program to make their mark at the top level include the likes of Jayawickrema, Athukorale and de Alwis, Davis Cup squad members at different times.
Presumably, it was a lack of funds that deactivated the junior development program some three years ago. Fortunately, though, the likes of Thangarajah and Nadaraja were able to emerge to the front because they attended St Peter’s College, where K D Pathiraja conducts excellent coaching programs, testified by the school’s dominance of the inter-schools tennis competitions over the past few years. The likes of Dissanayake and Waduge emerged through efforts of their personal coaches.
The Bin Issack committee, however, has put the junior development program back on rails, but as coach Shalini de Silva says, “It’ll be some years before the program’s products will be seen’’.
That, despite the hiccups in the development program in recent years, junior players were able to make their presence felt in the 2012 Nationals is proof of the high quality of young talent available – a fact that prompted chief guest, Aslam Omar, to remark that the talent ought to be better harnessed for the country’s benefit.
And he proffered advice: “I think more money should be put into tennis, say about $200, 000, which will inspire our players to reach for the skies. At worst, they’ll only fall on top of coconut trees” – which is better that remaining on the ground.
The sort of money Omar suggests is, well, for Sri Lanka tennis reaching for the sky. For the time being, though, Bin Issack committee’s pledge to “improve the lot of the players’’ is good enough a starting point from which to quest, if not for stars in the sky, then at least to bring home some coconuts.

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