The Sunday Leader

Tennis Shock: Rajeev Pulls Out Of Vietnam Davis Cup Tie

SRI LANKA’s Davis Cup chances in next month’s relegation playoff with Vietnam have been dented by the withdrawal of its most experienced campaigner: Rajeev Rajapakse.

The 33-year old veteran told the SLTA last week he is opting out of the April 4-6 tie in Da Lat, in the central highlands of Vietnam,owing to “work commitment’’. His absence means a dismantling of the doubles combination that had continuously been an integral part of the country’s Davis Cup campaign for nearly a decade, contributing in no small measure to our elevation to Group Two in 2011.

The SLTA reacted nostalgically to the veteran’s unavailability. “Rajeev’s been a part of our Davis Cup squad for so long that he’d become almost an institution. So, obviously his absence is sad. But the SLTA appreciates the reason for his withdrawal. After all the choice before him was either to play the tie or dislocatehis business, and with business being so competitive these days, you can’t blame Rajeev for choosing to stay at home,’’ said SLTA President, Iqbal bin Issack. “It is consoling, however, that his withdrawal opens the door for a youngster.’’

Rajapakse’s replacement, to partner Harshana Godamanna, 28,will be a race among the other three squad members: Dineshkanthan Thangarajah, schoolboy Sharmal Dissanayake and Amersh Jayawickreme. “We’ll give each of the three other members of the squad a chance to partner Harshana, and then make a call,’’ said Rohan de Silva, non-playing Captain. “In the end though, it is only fair to give Harshana the partner he’s most comfortable with – so we’ll be consulting him before Dominic (Utzinger, the coach) and I make the final decision.’’

Despite the fact thatthe old firmhas been hard put lately to deliver the success expected of them, the duo’s long years of togetherness on court made selectors wary about breaking up the partnership. So, for Rajapakse, it wasemotionally wrenching to opt out of an event he’s long been associated with, debuting way back in 1996. But for a three- year absence, 2000-2003, whilst studying in the U.S., he’s been a permanent fixture since his return in 2004 – and became welded, with Godamanna, as the country’s doubles combination.

“Obviously, it’s sadthat after all these long years I can’t play for my country – and even sadder that I can’t be playing on the same side of court with Harshana. Naturally, with time, our personal friendship became closer off-court as well. I’ll miss being on court with him (in Vietnam),’’ said Rajapakse, an optometrist who manages the family business. “In fact, I first consulted Harshana before deciding to opt out of tie.’’

Were Rajapakse available for the tie, it would’ve meant being away from Sri Lanka for about three weeks, as the squad is due to undergo ten days of specialized training at Dominic Utzinger’s Academy in Bangkok before directly flying out from there to Vietnam on March 31 for the April 4-6 tie.

“I just can’t afford to be out of the country for three weeks, not at this point in time, with the company’sexpansion plans underway – there’s just too much to work to attend to,’’ said Rajapakse – adding that his yearning to continue to represent the country in future Davis Cup ties remains strong yet. “I’ll be back in the fray for a place in next year’s squad.’’

Whoever replaces him; the new combination remains a bit of gamble, untried and untested as it is. But it does open the door to a new player. The presence of Godamanna and Thangarajah in the starting line up for the opening singles will remain. So the choice of Godamanna’s doubles partner will unavoidably be a new player: either schoolboy Dissanayake or Malaysia-based Jayawickreme, two players who’ve previously been in the squad but went unrepresented in the competition.

Having conceded the first tie to The Philippines, last January in Colombo, all of Sri Lanka’s chances of retaining their Group 2 place next year now rests on the outcome of the tie against Vietnam, 2/3 losers to Pakistan last month. Sri Lanka last year also lost 2/3 to the Pakistan team, which included star Aisam-ul-Haq Qureshi, a full time pro with a personal best ATP ranking of no.8 in the doubles and 125th in the singles.

Qureshi, however, gave last month’s Vietnam tie a miss.

“With Qureshi in the squad, the Pakistanis, I am sure, would’ve won by a larger margin. So you really can’t rule parity based on the identical score line recorded by Vietnam and us against Pakistan. But whilst we believe we have the potential to overcome Vietnam, we aren’t assuming anything,’’ says tennis chief bin Issack, “… which is why we’re not stinting on preparing the squad as best as possible, including an extended training session in Utiznger’s Bangkok Academy and arrival in Vietnam a full four days before the tie so as to better acclimatized.’’

History favours Sri Lanka, which has won all its four previous ties against Vietnam – in 2011, 2008, 2007 and 2006, all of them in Group 3 competitions. Vietnam graduated to Group 2 last year, indicating an improvement in their standard. So, it’s advisable to disregard our admirable Group 3 record against the Vietnamese and view them as equals – just as determined as us to remain a Group 2 nation next year as well.

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