‘Godda’ The Great Thinks Of Calling It A Day

‘Godda’ The Great Thinks Of Calling It A Day

IT IS Sri Lanka tennis’ misfortune that it has lived long, and continues to, in the shadows of the more popular sports. Its’ elitism, emanating from being a pastime unaffordable to a majority of the young has left tennis without the sort of grass root popularity that other sport enjoys, notably cricket, rugby and athletics. And so achievements in tennis don’t quite get the deserved media prominence, if it gets any at all; particularly vernacularly.

Last week, newspapers devoted acres and the electronic media gave hours to the Sri Lanka cricket team’s one-day victory over Zimbabwe; lengthy match reports generously illustrated pictorially and sidebars on the debutant hat-trick hero and the man-of-the-match, the full package as it were. This is not to say, the treatment given the cricketers’ triumph was over-the-top, especially as the Sunday-win levelled the score, 1-1, in the ongoing five-match series.

But Sunday’s win seen in a historical context begs the query if the treatment given to an outstanding achievement by a tennis player might not have been in measures more conspicuous. If it wasn’t ignored altogether, Sunday, especially in the vernacular media, the three-four paragraphs exposure given in the English papers, was no more than a catalogue of cold, emotionless facts; none of  the side-stories that accompanied the cricket triumph. As far as the tennis player’s achievement is concerned it was a rare story, not one you get to hear in years, like a hat-trick on debut.

Sri Lanka defeating Zimbabwe, in a historical context, is anything but an uncommon phenomenon: last week’s victory, in fact, was Sri Lanka’s 42nd. against Zimbabwe, in 52 matches between them, beginning in 1992; Zimbabwe has won eight times, and two encounters ended in no result. So, the Sunday-win was no big deal, really. But rationality and economics can’t coexist as media’s priorities are dictated by the wishes of the public – and public’s interest in cricket far outstrips that of a sport which pretty much is the preserve of the well-to-do. So the world had to be told in every detail of Sri Lanka’s forty-second win over Zimbabwe – the full package, nothing less.

If the country’s sparse tennis community are the only ones who are aware about the aforesaid deed of a tennis player, that’s understandable. Because, to say it bluntly, other than the thousand or so who make up island’s the tennis community, few others are interested enough to follow the sport’s fortunes. The media, by and large, reflects that interest or indifference – which meant a rare achievement by a Sri Lankan tennis player, was pretty much consigned to the anonymous. Cruel are the anomalies in the interest public show to popular and the not-so-popular sports.

The purpose of this column is to give due recognition to the admirable achievement of Harshana Godamanna, aka ‘Godda’, last weekend, which, in accordance with public rating, didn’t get the kudos it deserved, snowed under as it was by the ballyhoo over no.8 ranked Sri Lanka’s win over eleventh-ranked Zimbabwe.

The achievement: Godamanna’s successful advance to the semi-finals of the Men’s Singles and Doubles (partnered by Sharmal Dissanayake) in the ITF US$ 15,000 Futures Championships, the second of three back-to-back events now in progress at Green Path, Colombo.

Those with only a passing knowledge of tennis might want to dismiss the Futures as some insignificant tournament. To be sure, Futures is not Wimbledon, US, French or Australian Open. However, there’s no understating the importance of the Futures: it’s the ground on which the first steps are taken to becoming an eventual Grand Slam champion; the Futures, which, as the title suggest is opportunity for emerging players to find a pathway to the Grand Slam tournaments: ranking points gleaned from Futures deciding a player’s future in the pro circuit.

Cynics might ask what is so great about Godamanna’s achievement; it’s not that he has won at least one of the two finals, they might well ask. Admittedly, he was eliminated in both finals, but in Sri Lanka tennis’ history books you don’t find many Sri Lankans getting as far as a Futures semi final; the last was some ten year years ago, again by Godamanna, in Indonesia.

The admirable quality of Godamanna’s success last week is not only its rarity, but the circumstances in which it was achieved. The Futures circuit is no picnic; the competition is, to say the least, intensely virile, fuelled as it is by ambitions of young bloods from the world over to reach the higher echelons of the professional rankings. Godamanna once was one of those ambitious young bloods chasing dreams of being perhaps a Federer or Nadal one day – but that ‘one day’ was yet far, far away even after two years on the road. “A career in pro tennis isn’t easy as some think,’’ he said – he was ranked 811 in the world when he decided “to do (full-time) coaching and play a bit of tennis.’’  That was more than seven years ago.

So, with first-hand knowledge of the level of competition that exists in Futures, his decision to swing a racquet at the second US$15,000  could not have been spurred by ambitions of gaining ATP ranking points, prize money or personal fame. “If you ask me if qualifying for (at least) the semi-final was a motive for playing in a pro tournament at this stage of my life,  I have to say such brave aims never crossed my mind,’’ said the 31-year old former Royalist.. “The aim (of playing in these Futures) was to not lose badly and to stay on court as long as possible. Much of my time (in Boston, US) was taken up by coaching — and to make up on the deficit in match practice is why I am playing in these Futures and so that I’ may be better prepared for the (Jul.17-22) Davis Cup tie,’’ said Godamanna. “And how did I get as far as the semi finals? The expectations weren’t high, so I decided to go on court and enjoy the match – all the while determined to stay on court as long as possible so as to be in trim for the Davis Cup.’’

You can’t help but discern his sense of loyalty to the country’s tennis. Since residing in Boston, US, some six years ago, Godamanna has regularly flown out to do national Davis Cup duty, but his presence for this year’s campaign was especially crucial. Sri Lanka lost its place in Group 2 last season, after five years, and is aiming to retrieve its place this year, as they did in 2012 after demotion to Group 3 in 2011.

Rohan de Silva explains why it is important that promotion is obtained in the first year after demotion:  “If we don’t quickly reclaim a place in Group 2, we’ll likely be destined to spend long years in Group 3 or even four, as happened  during the (2002-2010) slump in Group 3,’’ says the non-playing captain since 2012, the year of our Group 2 promotion, “on the other hand, after demotion in 2011, we won promotion (to Group 2) in the very next year (2012) – and remained there for five years. My own explanation to this is: playing in Group 2 stimulates ambitions; playing Group 3 and below, tends to breed indifference.’’

Godamanna obviously subscribes to his captain’s theory, having experienced the high and lows of the country’s Davis Cup campaign since 2002. Thirty-one years old, 15 Davis Cup campaigns under his belt and a job in tennis coaching “my mind and body can’t seem to take it anymore.’’

“The feeling right now is that this will be my last Davis Cup. The exertion is getting too much to bear,’’ says Godamanna, “I’ll make the final call on my future (as a player) after the coming tie.’’ But don’t bet your shirt on this being his farewell Davis Cup appearance– he is far too committed to the cause of Sri Lanka tennis to deny his services in the future, should it be required. After all, if at 31 and with little match practice, he can advance to the semi finals of a pro tournament, he has to be good for another three-four-five Davis Cup campaigns.  No worthy successor hasn’t appeared on the horizon yet – so, even if ‘Godda’ decides to put away his playing-racquet in the attic, that won’t likely discourage the SLTA from knocking on his door, pleading “one more time, please.’’

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