The Sunday Leader

Bloodied But Unbowed

THE storyline of our Davis Cup tie last week turned out to be no different to the ones of the recent past.  For some six years, the Sri Lanka campaign has been pretty much the Godamanna show: he’d win both his Singles and, with Rajeev Rajapakse, hopefully, the Doubles too.
The manner of approach was clearly a skate on thin ice.So the intention this year was to give the story a different twist:  to add at least a win by another to Godamanna’s customary two, and thus lighten this long dependency on a single player. The one expected to deliver the third Singles success was Dineshkanthan Thangarajah, who, going into last week’s tie, hada win/ loss record of 2:4 in two Davis Cup appearances and, domestically, had made the no.1 spot his personal abode since 2010.
As well, the 22-year-old had spent useful time in the Indian Futures circuitin the closing months of last year, and, in December, as a part of the preparation for last week’s tie, figured in the Asian Pro Championships in Bangkok. So there was reason to be sanguine about Thangarajah contributing to author a different storyline this year.
In the event, however, last week’s tiewas a rerun of the old, familiar story: of riding all our hopes on Godamanna’s shoulders. He won all that Sri Lanka had to show: twowins. Unlike the past three years, the Doubles this year was conceded, and so was the tie, 2/3. What this means is that our place in the Asia/Oceania Group Two next year is anything but certain, an ambivalence that the SLTA had invested much to ward-off. After all, it’s truism that what can be accomplished at home is doubly difficult on rival territory.
A pre-requisite to preserve our place inthe Asia/Oceania Group Two next year is a win in at least one of the two ties this year – and, with home advantage, the aim was to seal our place in Group 2 place in Colombo. Duly, the SLTA ploughed over a million rupees into the final month of preparations, including contracting the services of professional coach Dominic Utizinger, as well as securing a top player from Thailand as sparring partner to our squad.
The desired returns from the investment were not to be. But to pass judgement that thespending was a waste would be grossly unfair – the whys and wherefores of which we’ll leave aside for the time being. Sure, the loss to Pakistan is disappointing, but it’s not an end of world scenario as far as retaining our Group Two place is concerned.
It is now all down to the relegation tie against Lebanon, thrashed 0/5 by New Zealand in Wellington in the other Group Two tie last week. The ITF has yet to confirm the venue of the tie in April, but it is hard to think that Colombo will get the chance to play host for a second time in two months. That, however, doesn’t make Lebanon the logical venue. Reason: security concerns; Lebanon and violence-wracked Syria share common borders, and some of the violence reportedly have spilled over the former’s boundary.
This much is certain, though: if Lebanon is deemed unsafe, the right of choice to name an alternate site would be the Lebanese’s. The SLTA for its part, however, has offered to host the tie, according to Udith Wickremasinghe, Chairman Tournament and Match Committee. “It’s a long shot. Obviously Lebanon too would be keen to avoid relegation (to Group 3), and no doubt would not want to concede home advantage to us. Even so, we have informed the ITF of our willingness to host the event – just in case the Lebanese can’t find an alternate venue. They have to confirm their decision by March, which isn’t a lot of time,” said Wickremasinghe. “Pakistan beat Lebanon last year, and if we can host the April tie then we would’ve enhanced our chances to avoid relegation.”
The SLTA’s enthusiasm to host the April tie, critics might claim, is misplaced giventhe disappointment of last week’s loss.But that’s more an emotional than rational reaction. The truth is that, our performance was anything but disheartening. Make no mistake, we went down with guns blazing.Andthe cause for disappointmentwas not so much about losing as the regret of getting that close and not winning. In the end, Sri Lanka fell short by one win – a win that was within reach in all of the three matches Pakistan won.
Before discussing reasons for the failure to win one more match, it is only proper to first pay tribute to the redoubtable Harshana Godamanna. His wins in the singles might’ve been expected, but they weren’t certainties. The US-based player in fact had admitted, prior to the tie, that he hadn’t played as many matches as he would’ve liked to in the months approaching the tie. And with a confrontation against the hard-boiled pro and twice US Open Doubles finalist, Qureshi, only a brave gambler would’ve bet on Godamanna winning both his singles. That he did so, and wins both in straight sets, is a reflection of his sublime talents.
A pro he isn’t, but seeing his brilliant shot-making, his ruthlessness in moments of his opponent’s vulnerability, and the steely resolve to battle out of his ownmoments of vulnerability, you wondered if he or Qureshi was the pro on court. If there had been an award for the player of the tournament, Godamanna would’ve been the hands-down winner. He was up there in isolated splendour.
It was the sort of performance that deserved to be on the winning side. This, however, is not to apportion blame for the team’s failure on Thangarajah, the second singles player, or Rajeev Rajapakse, Doubles partner to Godamanna. Thangarajah, after all, conceded his first match to Aqueel Khan, Pakistan’s no.2,byvirtual default, retiring in the third set with cramps, not inferiority. Each had won a set, and who might’ve been the eventual winner had the match run its full course, is any body’s guess. The popular thinking was that Pakistan’s no.2  was going to be a relatively easier proposition for Thangarajah than the visitors’no.1. Qureshi.
Consider the disparities: Qureshi – in the ATP circuit since 1998, twice US Open doubles finalist, a highest ATP ranking of eighth in doubles and 125th in Singles; winner of the most number of Davis Cup matches for Pakistan, engineered his country to the World Group of Davis Cup in 2005. Thangarajah – three Davis Cup appearances, National Singles champion since 2010… that’s about it.
On the basis of those credentials, their meeting, in prospect, looked a case of presenting lamb to lion. On court, however, there were moments when the bleat was louder than theroar. The young Sri Lankan, in fact, took the second set, 6/3, after breaking Qureshi’s serve twice. In the end, however, the Pakistani, drawing on his enormous experience, won in four sets, but Thangarajah was far from disgraced.
Had Thangarajah half the maturity of Godamanna, he might’ve found a way of overcoming Qureshi. It was clear that the Pakistani, with a penchant for volleying, preferred to play close to the net. The logical counter would’ve been to peg him to the baseline, force long rallies and slowing down the game, Achilles heel to practitioners of the serve-and-volley game. But the kid decided to fight fire with fire. Once too often his passing shots went too wide or too long. If it didn’t , then Qureshi, a master at volleying, was destined to win out the close-range exchanges.
In the end, winning a set off Qureshi wasn’t enough to win the tie for the country, but from the perspective of a 22-year-old who has just set out on a pro career, a set off a Grand Slam finalist is a significant step forward. This much can be said of the former student of St. Peters, Bambalapitiya and St. Michael’s, Batticaloa: he is on the same pathway Godamanna  treaded not many years ago.
With cramps and Qureshi’s vast experience conspiring to deny Thangarajah a win – and Sri Lanka the tie – to place the blame on the doubles pair is to be expected, pointedly on Rajeev Rajapakse, not so much because of a lack skills as his age, 32 years. Managing the family business, it wouldn’t be wrong to say that his involvement in tennis is recreational. But the fact is, he’s yet the best available partner to Godamanna. But 32 years and recreational tennis, however, aren’t quite the right ingredients to cook up victory in a grim five-set match of over three hours, in baking heat.
Over the first three sets, though, Godamanna and Rajapakse combined  fluently and efficiently to lead 2/1. But fourth set on, disintegration set in with a weary Rajapakse drifting into disarray. Eventually, the fourth and fifth sets were taken by Pakistan, 6/3, 6/3 respectively.
In the final analysis, it was the Pakistan’s vast international experience that made the difference. The Sri Lankans, though not half as seasoned as their opponents, can take a pride in the fact that they kept favourites waiting till all but the final set of the final match before conceding the tie. Beaten, but unbowed, they were.

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