SLTA Charting A Path To Davis Cup Group 1
SRI Lanka tennis’s successful defence of itsGroup Two Davis Cup status might be an old story, but the SLTA’s elation yet lingerson. Last week, nearly a month after the success, tennis officials threw a party felicitating the team that overcame hosts Lebanon in early April,so ensuring the country remained on ITF’s Group 2 list for another year.
Salutations to the squad, Thursday night, were made at five-star Kingsbury, no less, with Sport Minister Mahindanada Aluthgamage,the Chief Guest, doling out cash rewards, varying from Rs.40, 000 to Rs.100, 000. As well, the players were presented with bronze-coloured medals, especially minted to celebrate the success.Cocktails and a sumptuous dinner followed. And the television cameras and the media were there to record the event for posterity.
The celebration was grand to say the least, and the uninitiated watching all this at Kingsbury might’ve believed that Sri Lanka tennis had scaled a new peak and was commemorating the conquest.They were only slightly wrong. Sri Lanka has been a Davis Cup Group Two contestant for four of the past five years, but this year was the first time the country had retained its place for a third successive year – a remarkable achievement for a country that had spent the first decade of the new millennium wallowing in Group 3 and four.
It managed to break out from the cellars to Group 2, in 2009, but was demoted back to Group 3 the next year. A one-night stand, the critics derided. So, having now retained its Group Two status for three straight years, it is understandable why the SLTA might want to celebrate the achievement a little longer. The allure of newness, after all, doesn’t fade in a day. But when authorities now also speak of promotion to Group 1, you begin to wonder if theireuphoriahas advanced to a point of distorting objectivity.
After three years in Group 2, it isof course excusable shoulddreams drift toGroup 1 elevation. It might seem only one step away, but, realistically, it’s a huge chasm to cross. Group 1, it has to be noted, is a step below the World Group, the highest level, which is made up of the world’s top eight countries and features players from the top end of the ATP rankings, the likes of Nadal, Federer, Murray and Djokovic. The quality and competition level of Group One is clearly some notches below that of the World Group, which is Grand Slam class, really. Equally, it is a fair conclusion that Group 1 is also some way ahead of Group 2, in terms of the quality of the opposition encountered.
Group 1 promotion, incidentally, is on a regional basis, meaning, should we aspire promotion, we’ll have to contend with opponents from Asia and Oceania, not worldwide. That the restriction to opponents from Asia/Oceania might enhance promotional prospects, however, is utter fallacy. If we were elevated to a Group 1 country tomorrow, then, we’re talking about confronting the likes of Australia, India, China, Japan, Uzbekistan, currently Group 1’s second seed, and South Korea, all considered potential World Group countries; at least two of them, Australia and India, have played at the World level not many moons ago.
So is our ambition for Group 1 promotion at this point in time a tad too premature? “The transition from Group 2 to one isn’t easy – but in the three successive years we’ve played in Group 2, we have come to realize that promotion is not impossible. That wasn’t our state of mind in the decade and more years we struggled in Group 3 and four – the change of mindset is a big leap forward, as far as confidence goes,’’ said Iqbal Bin Issack, SLTA President. “On reflection, we should really have yet beenin contention for promotion this year. After all we ran Pakistan close (in the first of our two Davis Cup ties), and had cramps not forced Dineshkanthan (Thangaraja) to concede his first match on a walkover, we might’ve won both our first round ties and qualified for the semi-final playoffs for Group 1 promotion.’’
Bin Issack admits that Group 1 promotion is a long term goal, but unless “we address our minds to promotion right now and begin a campaign to reach that goal ’’ Sri Lanka is not likely to think beyond Group 2. “We’ll have to break out of the mentality: Group 2 is the ultimate,’’ said the chief of tennis.
The Davis Cup team management’s short and medium term plan isn’t far-fetched as their public expressions of enthusiasm for Group One promotion might suggest. Its tone is far more pragmatic. The aim is not about shooting for Group 1 promotion in a year or two. As Team Captain, Rohan de Silva put it: “When you talk about Group 1you’re talking about battling players who are likely to be in the top 500 bracket of the ATP world rankings – i.e. full-time professional players. The ATP rankings list runs into thousand and more names – and currently no Sri Lankan name is to be found in that thousand-plus list. So you can imagine just how handicapped our players are as regards international experience – and any hopes of Group 1 promotion in the near future has to be considered wishful thinking.’’
Having said that, de Silva dismisses the notion Group 1 is a bridge too far to cross. “You shouldn’t forget that all Group 2 countries too have ATP ranked players. They may not be ranked as high as players in Group 1, but they spend a lot more time in the pro circuit whereas our playersplay mostly at home – and mostly at weekends,’’ said de Silva. “But that our part-timers have frequently overcome ATP ranked players in Group 2 show we have the talent to compete at the Group 1 – given the essentials required to compete at the higher level are provided to them.’’
Accepting the fact that there’s no short route to Group 1, so, would be as good a first step to take as any. The team management’s Group 1 plan reflects that realism. “We’re going to be in G-2 for a while longer– that’s the reality. After all, there’s more we have to achieve in G-2 before we turn our minds to promotion – like win both our G-2 first-round matches and qualify for the semi finals,’’ says Manager, Udith Wickremasinghe. “The chief goal next year, I think, should be to qualify for the G-2 semi finals – and take things forward from there on.’’
It is nice to wish that, having qualified for the semi final next year, we go on to qualify for the final as well, although the realization of the latter is stretching hope to breaking-point. More important, however, is semi final qualification, which, if achieved next year, apart from being historic, can change the prospect of Group 1 promotion from the present “not in the foreseeable future’’ to one of “sooner than later’’.
This isn’t dreams born of the euphoria of triumph in Lebanon last month. It is backed by a plan: “We need to have a nucleus of about five players worthy of Davis Cup representation. We already have three: Godamanna, Dineshkanthan and Rajapakse, all of who have played in the Davis Cup. Also, junior champion Sharmal Dissanayake’s entry is imminent – he’s played frequently in the junior international circuit, experience that’s going to hold him in good stead at the senior level. So all we have to do is add another player or two to the Davis Cup pool – and keep them in yearlong harness, ‘’ said Manager Wickremasinghe.
Of course, the calendar of domestic events isn’t busy enough to keep the pool of players in yearlong harness. “Let’s face it, you can’t breed Group 1 Davis Cup players solely on a diet of domestic tournaments – it doesn’t happen that way in any country that takes its tennis seriously,’’ says Wickremasinghe. “You have to ensure that our top players get international exposure, playing in the Futures pro circuit. It’s not a requirement we weren’t aware of before – but did little or nothing about raising funds to make it happen’’ – adding plans are now afoot to set up a Davis Cup fund.