IT’S fairly common knowledge among the local tennis community that the ambition of young players – and their parents – is to achieve a degree of success that would, hopefully, earn a tennis scholarship in an US university.
The goal is laudable for many reasons, chiefly, the exposure young Sri Lankan players would get in a country where the game is a flourishing industry, not to speak of an environment that breeds world champions – and at nearly-nothing cost to local tennis administrators. The biggest dividend as far as the country is concerned is that these US-based players would be available for national representation.
That being the prospects, the remarks of SLTA President, Suresh Subramaniam, on the customary partiality shown to overseas-based players, mostly in the US, does raise eyebrows. The burden of Subramaniam’s song: being based overseas shouldn’t equate to automatic National selection. He suggested to the Morning Leader, of last Wednesday, that foreign-based players aspiring to represent Sri Lanka ought to show either 1/ a
US ranking 2/ ITF ranking or 3/ prove they are better than the locally-based National squad players by playing in pre-selection trials. No open-sesame – just because they play overseas.
He explained: "I am not against selecting Sri Lankan players based overseas per se. unfortunately however; the long held belief is that overseas-based players are better than the locally-based ones – and selections made on that assumption is unfair."
There was a time, though, that assumption was fairly legitimate, and due largely to the credence lent it by the likes of Arjun Fernando and Umesh Wallooppillai, two US-based players who contributed significantly to Sri Lanka’s Davis Cup successes in the 1980s. That was then; now, however, the old assumption doesn’t necessarily hold water.
It’s not that the magnetism that attracts young ambitions to the US is now to be found in old Lanka, though, it is said, the lot of the present local players in terms of coaching and overseas competition is significantly better than that of old. It’s not the intention either to infer the locally-based players have improved to a point that we now don’t require the services of the overseas-based players. For that sort of
luxury, the conditions for development here should’ve reached a level found in, if not the US, at least in India. And both are too distant shores to even imagine reaching.
The dispute here is not about conditions here, the US or Timbuktu. It’s about the level of commitment of the Sri Lankan overseas-based players to the game. It is no secret that though many obtain scholarships on condition of pursuing their ambitions in tennis, priorities are reshuffled once their feet are planted in the US. To be fair, however, it has to be said the path to making a living out of tennis is both demanding and,
initially, hugely expensive. Dropouts so abound.
If I might digress for awhile here: The road to the higher echelons of professional ranking (where the big money is found) is only through gaining points from prize-money tournaments, held mostly in the US and Europe. High-profile (read: high-ranking) players don’t turn up at these events unless on all-expenses-paid terms. But beginners and fringe-players don’t have such bargaining power. They participate at their own
expense, and if some lose early, pack up, pay their hotel bills and leave lighter of wallets, well, just bad luck. Pursuing a professional tennis career is a bit of roulette, really.
So, it isn’t surprising that the ambitions of most Sri Lankans on tennis scholarships are diverted elsewhere, mostly to obtaining a degree in what ever that can find employment in the US. And then, of course, win the ultimate: Green Card. So, two-three years into the scholarship, commitment diminishes and the game is hardly a high priority in the lives of the Sri Lankan overseas-based players.
How unimportant tennis becomes is eloquently told by this story. A former National woman’s singles champion, on scholarship in an US university, informed the SLTA that she would be available for country representation at the Fed Cup. At her request, the SLTA then confirmed to her US university the importance of her participation to the country – and was duly granted leave by the authorities. Once in Sri Lanka, however,
playing for the country paled before the joys of reuniting with her loved ones. She didn’t set foot on a Sri Lanka tennis court.
The SLTA felt it had been taken for a ride, and any intention on its part then to reject future selection of overseas-based players would’ve been an excusable reaction. But SLTA officials are well aware that would be a case of cutting your nose to spite your face. The truth is that the attraction of a US tennis scholarship remains undimmed to the young – and their parents – and the best of our young players will continue to
go west. They are, after all, exercising their right to pursue a better future for themselves.
It is nice to hope these scholarship-players would, at least, be serious about representing the country – and not use Sri Lanka tennis as something of a doormat to enter the world of the good life. Just as much as it is the responsibility of the SLTA to prevent abuses in the name of Sri Lanka tennis, so it is the task of finding ways and means to procure the services of the overseas-based players. The most obvious method is
through maintaining a healthy rapport with those players themselves.
There are other methods too, like offer of remuneration for national duty. But what ever it is, it hardly needs to be emphasized that the principle of choosing the best possible team to represent the country should not be compromised. You would think that elementary principle has been followed, but obviously it hasn’t, which is why Subramaniam speaks of ensuring its application.
As he says, many US universities offer tennis scholarships; some are of higher level than others. "On paper the success of some players looks very impressive, but we have to make sure that the quality of the tournaments in which they were achieved are of some significance," said Subramaniam. "After all, we don’t want to devalue our own national selections."
One might have thought the selection of 18-year-old Franklyn Emmanuel, the youngest in history to win the National Men’s Singles champion, in 2001 aged 14, wouldn’t devalue the national team. At 16, he represented the country in the Davis Cup and at 17, was a part of the team that won for the country Group Three Davis Cup promotion. But last year, the former Royalist went away to the US on a tennis scholarship and,
apparently, the SLTA lost track of his tennis.
With Renouk Wijemanne, our no.1 player of last year, unavailable this year, there’s been talk of calling on the services of Emmanuel, in whose development the SLTA invested heavily. But given past experience, it is understandable why the SLTA should have reservations about fielding any overseas-based players on blind faith.
The perfect solution would be for Emmanuel to present himself for the trials, i.e. if he hasn’t achieved a decent US or ITF ranking. Should he prove his superiority over other National pool players in the trials, then, he would have to be our no.1 Davis Cup singles player. The problem is the uncertainty of obtaining time off from his university schedule – you are speaking of a likely time off period of about three weeks,
encompassing training, trials and competition, which itself takes up nearly a week.
Emmanuel, through his successes from under-14 champion to becoming the youngest ever National champion and Davis Cup triumphs, has been a showcase for SLTA’s junior development program. That sort of advancement requires total commitment. If his commitment in the US is of the level he showed at home, then, he merits consideration for Davis Cup selection. So, it will be worthwhile for the SLTA to commission an independent
monitoring of his progress – and his inclusion or otherwise decided on the basis of the progress reports. That isn’t selection on blind faith.