The Sunday Leader

Old Tennis Nationals Is Getting A New Shine

BIG prize-money tennis tournaments might have diminished the once-paramount National Tennis Championship in mostother countries, but in Sri Lanka national titles remain the most coveted yet – just as it was back in 1884, the year of the event’s commencement.

That the annual eventboasts of a history longer than the SLTA, two years shy of its centenary, gives it a sacred aura all its own.National Championships prior to the SLTA coming into being, in 1915, must certainly have been organized and conducted by an ad hocbody of enthusiastic British expatriates keen to injectsome excitement into the loneliness of life in a distant colonial outpost.

A souvenir admirably crafted by D. L.Seneviratne to mark SLTA’s 75thbirthday, in 1990, remarks that it is within Sri Lanka’s right to claim a Wimbledon champion hailed from the island’s shores: the 1878 All-England champion was a gentleman called Frank Hadow, an Englishman who at the time of winning Wimbledon was a coffee planter residing in the island’s hill country. Tea might’ve replaced the blighted coffee plantations, but nothing quite has taken the place of the National Tennis Championship – it still reigns supreme as the country’s premier tennis competition.

With a history as old as 129 years, theNationals provide many memorable moments to recall. The first native Men’s Singles champion was E R de Saram, who, in 1919, ended the Europeans’ domination of the title since the event’s inception in 1884.The European domination of the women’s singles continued for longer, till 1932, when Miss Needra Obeysekera(later Needra de Saram, wife of the legendary Col. FC) became the first local women’s champion. The first local men’s player to win the singles title in two successive years was O. M. Lisboa Pinto, in 1920 and ’21. He repeated the feat in 1923 and ’24, and, overall, had won the title seven times.

Doreen Sansoni’s six successive women’s singles titles, from 1935 to ’40, remains a record yet, as is her overall seven singles titles – three less than E. De Fonblanque’s record ten in the men’s singles, 1886-88; 1891-94 and 1896-97.

The men’s singles title wasnever easy picking, just ask Bernard Pinto. Theson of the illustrious O M L figured in the Championship Roll for the first time in 1951, as runner-up in the Men’s Doubles, partnering D L Fonseka, but it wasn’t until 1966 that the son was able to join the father on the list of singles winners. Presuming the younger Pinto made his National debut in 1951, he had then waited fifteen long years to win his first and onlySingles title in nearly two-decade long career.

In fairness it has to be said that the quality of competition in the 50s through 70s was nothing like what it was post-80s., when foreign participation had become increasinglyscarce. Of the ten years, 1951 to 60, overseas players took the Men’s Singles title no less than eight times. The winners included Indians (I Ahamed, Ramesh Krishnan, S C Misra and Akthar Ali) an Australian (Jack Arkinstall, contemporary of one-time great Frank Sedgman) a Polish (Victor Skonecki) and a Swede (Lennart Bergelin, later coach of Bjorn Borg).

In the decade 1961-70, the Men’s title was shipped overseas on five occasions: to India (Akthar Ali, A Amiritraj and R Venkatesan); to Indonesia (Sie Nie Sie) and Germany (G Elsenbroich).

The heavy presence of foreigners at Nationals of old wasn’t surprising, the romance of the event’s history and that of the SLTA being the allure. The D. L. Seneviratne-edited souvenir of 1990 notes that the SLTA is the second oldest controlling body for tennis in Asia, second to Hong Kong; itis also older than even the French Tennis Federation, host of one of the world’s four Grand Slams. Up to 1946, the Presidents of the association were British Governors of the time – a heady mix of heritage and power ensuring the event’s attraction was preserved well past the country’s independence in 1948.  Post independence, by far the most outstanding performer was Arjun Fernando whose five successive men’s singles titles, 1984-88, is unmatched in the 129-year history of the Nationals. His ATP world ranking of 220 in 1980 is the highest a Sri Lankan has ever achieved.

Fast-forward to the new millennium, and the Nationals, though it remains the country’s premier competition yet, is but a pale shadow of past versions. With plentiful prize-money tournaments conducted the world over;overseas players can hardly be lured here. Professional players, naturally, prefer to play in tournaments where the money on offer is big. Andthe US$750 on the prize table for the National Men’s champion isn’t exactly what nectar is to bees –foreign players so flit to elsewhere.

Apart from the absence of foreign challengers, critics might also point to the absence,in recent times,of leading local players and so deride the value of present-day National titles. The 2013 ongoing Nationals, for instance, will not see the country’s leading men’s player, Harshana Godamanna, in action. In fact, he’s was missing from the two previous Nationals, too.

So has the Nationals descended to a point that it’s the premier event only in name? If the event is measured strictly by a count of foreign and local stars participants, its importance, in comparison to events of the 50s through 70s has doubtlessly depreciated. But the annual tournament serves a useful purpose, nonetheless. Godamanna’s absencein 2011, for instance, opened the door to championship honours for the then 20-year old Dineshkanthan Thangarajah. He won the, national men’s singles in 2011, successfully defended the title in’12 – and duly earned the second singles slot in our Davis Cup team.

It is fair to say the confidence accruing from his rapid rise in the ranks of local tennis helped Thangarajah, a product of Batticaloa, to clinch the decisive match in Sri Lanka’s 3/2 victory over Lebanon last April – and so preserve the country’s Group 2 status in the Davis Cup competition for a third successive year, an achievement of historic proportions. Sri Lanka’s previous presence in the Group 2 ranks was only of a year’s duration.

Neither is there reason to gripe about Godamanna’s absence taking the sheen off the Nationals. He has been National champion more than once, and continuing to add more singles titles to his list is not going to help the country’s Davis Cup cause. “Tennis has changed a lot since the 50s and 60s and inevitably our Nationals too changed. Let’s face it we can’t put up the sort of prize money that can attract overseas players. But that doesn’t mean the Nationals is just another tournament – at stake are national titles, and that’s something any local player dearly wants to add to his c.v.,’’ said Iqbal bin Issack, SLTA President.

“My belief is that the Nationals nowshould serve as a springboard for our Davis Cup ambitions. Of course, the Nationals have been trials to select our Davis Cup squads after which the selectees go through a program of training – admittedly inadequate preparation, especially for Group 2 competition.

“Lately though, we have enhanced our post-Nationals Davis Cup preparations. Young players who impress at the Nationals are to be provided withoverseas training and opportunities to play in the ITF Futures circuit overseas. Harshana became so much a better player because of his US experiences and overseas training;a path that Dinesh (kanthan) too is following, playing in Futures overseas and training stints in the Bangkok Tennis Academy. It’ll be nice if we can have those playing overseas competing as well and so restore the old sheen of past Nationals, but that’s less of a priority than our Davis Cup campaign.’’

So that the system Issack speaks of is firmly entrenched, some of Sri Lanka’s outstanding junior players are being exposed to overseas competitions and coaching. Junior champion, Sharmal Dissanayake, since setting his mind on a professional career some two years ago, has been paying his way to compete in junior events overseas, as well as coaching by foreigners.

Hewill represent Sri Lanka in the Boys competition of the Asian Youth Games in Beijing and Girls National Junior champion, Nethmi Waduge in the Girls competition. As well, the SLTA has arranged for four juniors (Deepal Fernando, Waduge, Thewuni Devaraja and Hasindi Lokuge) to be trained in the Utizinger Tennis Academy in Bangkok. And, in what is manna from heaven, the careers of juniors Nishangan Nadaraja and Sheehan Deepal Fernando, both talented but from economically-deprived backgrounds, are to be recently sponsored by Namal Rajapaksa’s Hambantota Sports Club. The sponsorship will cover the duo’s participation in overseas competitions as well as coaching by specialist foreign coaches.

The old sheen of the Nationals might’ve dulled, but with so much emphasis placed on the younger players, a new sheen on the event doesn’t look far off.

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