Spending On A New Path To Davis Cup Glory

THE way Rohan de Silva, the non-playing captain, explains it, Sri Lanka’s preparation for the Davis Cup tie against Lebanon is presently all but sitting on its haunches. The crucial tie, which determines the level at which the country qualifies for next year’s competition, is less than a month away – and what does de Silva say of our state of preparedness? “Both our singles players (who’ll figure in four of the tie’s five matches) aren’t even seen these days on the SLTA courts – so what preparation is there to speak of. ’’

What of the two other squad members: doubles specialist, Rajeev Rajapakse and reserve Amaresh Jayawickrema?  “Amaresh is studying in Malaysia and supposedly playing some competitive tennis there. Anyway we’ve left it to him to prepare the best way he can for the Davis Cup,’’ says de Silva. “Rajeev too has been left to his own devices since the end of the last tie (against Pakistan, Feb 1-3);he is due to begin official practice next week’’ – i.e. 23 days prior to the April 2 departure to Beirut.

To the uninitiated all this might seem a bizarre and bedraggledbuild up for what is singly Sri Lanka tennis’s most important international challenge. But, SLTA officials won’t have it any other way. “This time round the preparation has been as good as it can be,’’ says de Silva “… it’s the sort of ideal preparation we always had hoped for.’’

If three of the four national players are absent and official training in Colombo, beginning this week, is for the benefit of just one player, who, incidentally, will figure in only the solitary doubles match of the tie, then, to talk of preparations for the April 5-7 event in superlatives is … well, let’s just say, worthy of inclusion in Ripley’s collections of the improbable.Imagine less than half-dozen of our cricket team training for just three weeks before flying out for a Test match – too absurd to be true.

Not quite, really. Tennis is not cricket. Davis Cup is only once a year, unlike Test cricket. Cricketers have more than one Test series a year, not to speak of the countless one-day and T-20 internationals, and so year-round preparedness is a prerequisite for national cricketers. Not so our tennis payers.

“Quite a few players in Group 2 countries play in the professional circuit and so are in harness until the Davis Cup comes along. Thus preparations especially for the Davis Cup isn’t a compulsion, ’’ says de Silva. “Such convenience however is an unaffordable luxury in our system. After each Davis Cup, our players as good as live in Desert Island as far as international competition is concerned – meaning, we don’t have players engaged full-time in the professional circuit. So, preparation for the Davis Cup is a separate exercise – a series of trials before selections, followed by months-long training program under an overseas professional coach, funds permitting.’’

That process was re-runprior to the tie against Pakistan in Colombo last month, which was conceded, 2/3, after an admirably gritty performance. However, the lead up to next month’s encounter in Lebanon, by comparison, looks a lot less comprehensive. Not so, according to the non-playing captain, a veteran Davis Cup campaigner of more than a decade.

“The time in-between the two ties are ideally spent playing competitive tennisoverseas simply because the quality of opposition found abroad is not available domestically. To be honest, Harshana is in a league of his own and Dinesh second best – the two are so far ahead of the rest that that there’s little to gain from playing competitively here. Ideally, they have to play abroad. But providing overseas competition prior to a Group 2 tie wasn’t a part of SLTA’sbudgetary allotment for Davis Cup preparations, ‘’ says de Silva. “Happily it is this year.’’

Harshana Godamanna, our no.1 singles player,is studying in Boston and his overseas competition is no strain on SLTA’s purse. Reports reaching here speak of Godamanna juggling his studies with a busy schedule of tournaments in the state of Massachusetts. “The last we heard was he’s engaged in a series of State tournaments, and that he’s been winning more matches than losing. He was in peak form against the Pakistanis, despite playing only some ten matches in the months before the tie.

That he’s played more matches in recent weeks and is winning most of them is a happy omen,’’ said de Silva. “Harshana needs no supervision anyway – he’s focussed,self-motivated and pursues his ambitionsseriously.’’

Godamanna has won all his Davis Cup singles matches over the past two-three years and so is not one of Sri Lanka tennis’s concerns in the context of Davis Cup ambitions. “Godamanna’scontributions are awesome, but the overreliance on him alone has got to a point of worry. It isn’t a healthy forecast of our future,’’ says Iqbal bin Issack, chief of Sri Lanka tennis. “The last thing we want is for Sri Lanka tennis to be stranded once Harshana bows out. Neither do we want to be over-reliant on one player in the future – the goal is to have more Godamannas at the same time.’’

For starters, the SLTA are investing generously in making another Godamanna out of Dineshkanthan Thangarajah, the 22-year old no.2 singles player. The SLTA has funded Thangarajah’s two-week training stint at professional coach Dominic Utzinger’s Tennis Academy in Bangkok – after which it will fund the former Peterite’s tour to India and Qatar where he’ll play in the ITF professional Futures tournaments.
“Dinesh could not have asked for a better workout in the run up to the Davis Cup – he’s going to be away practicing and playing for nearly a month, and in fact flies into Lebanon directly from Qatar; he’ll obviously be in prime condition,’’ says de Silva.

The hope is that the no.2 singles player can play an influential role in gaining team success. In other words, to win a singles match of critical importance, which, in the event of a reversal in the doubles, can negate the loss and assure the team’s victory – presuming Godamanna delivers his customary two wins in the singles.

“This is Dinesh’s third Davis Cup appearance; he has won a match or two before, but these wins were of no consequence as they were in the reverse singles, with the outcome of the tie already settled. What he needs – and he’s aware of it – is to win a singles match that will determine the tie’s result,’’ says de Silva, ‘’… that win can be the most important in his life, and there are signs it isn’t far off.’’

Those signs are best reflected by the fact that he took a set off Aisam-ul-Haq Qureshi, twice US Open doubles finalist and Aqueel Khan in the recent Pakistani tie, as well as a set off team mate Godamanna in the final of the Queen’s Club Championship a week before the February tie. “For one who’s just begun his journey in big-time tennis, winning a set against seasoned seniors as Qureshi and Harshana are signs of better times to come,’’ says de Silva “look at it this way, having won one set, he’s two sets away from winning a match. To win those two sets is easier said than done, but frequent overseas exposures since February, including the Pakistani tie, probably puts him in a better position to convert a one-set lead to victoryin Lebanon.’’

Lebanon isn’t exactly unknown quantity. Some five years ago, Sri Lanka beat Lebanon in a four-nation Group 3 contest in Colombo. But too much should not be read into that success. The meeting was, after all, only of academic interest, and the Lebanese, having already qualified for Group 2 promotion, had put out their second stringers against the host country.
The Middle East country, however, will be less generous in the coming tie. Their determination to avoid Group 3 relegation was reflected in their insistence to host the April tie – countering ITF’s intention to hold the tie in Colombo owing to security concerns. (The civil war in neighbouring Syria reportedly spills over to Lebanon).

The April 5-7 tie is to be staged in the north, away from the trouble spots, at the ATCL Club, which has green clay courts. “Green clay courts are rare, and they obviously feel they’d be at an advantage, being accustomed to the surface. What we know of green clay courts are that they are slower than our clay courts, but not a lot slower so as to cause discomfort to our players,’’ said de Silva.
The Pakistanis, it has to be noted, played Lebanon at the ATCL Club in last year’s Group 2 tie – and squeezed home, 3/2. The closeness of contest was due as much to the slowness of the green clay courts as the exceptional talents of Bassam Beidas, who boasts of a career high world ranking of 499, achieved in May 2012, but presently has slipped to 1094. The Lebanese no.1 whipped Pakistanis Qureshi and Aqueel in straight sets last year – just as Godamanna did in last month’s tie here.

Lebanon’s no.2 singles players, Karim Alayli, however, appears to be less threatening: he lost to Qureshi and Aqueel in straight sets.
So, there’s a shade of High Noon in the meeting between Beidas and Godamanna. “If Godda wins, then api goda,’’ says Udith Wickremasinghe, Secretary of Tournament and Matches Committee. “Otherwise, it looks as if the doubles will be the decider – unless Dinesh pulls off his biggest Davis Cup singles win.’’

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