YOU’D expect players to be climbing over each others’ shoulders to get a slice of the action at a National Championship, especially one with a rich history, like that of tennis. There was no desperate scramble, though, to get on court for the ongoing 95th Tennis Nationals, an annual tournament so immersed in tradition that to call it the Wimbledon of Sri Lanka wouldn’t be unbecoming.
Sadly, the 2010 event hasn’t lived up to its classy reputation. None of its five major events could muster the customary compliment of 32 players – a quota that ensures an event will feature five rounds of competition, a minimum prerequisite for a tournament of reckoning. In past years, entries were so plentiful that, bar the top ranked players, a qualifying round was conducted to decide the other competitors. “In better times we’ve had a 64-player draw,’’ said Barathi Rajapillai, SLTA’s chief of Junior Development.
This time round, however, participants are going to be sitting on their haunches more than sweating on court during much of the 13 days (Aug. 26-Sept.3) set aside for the championship. The Men’s Singles excepted, the entries for the other major titles (Women’s Singles; Men’s and Women’s Doubles and Mixed Doubles) are insufficient for even a 16-player draw.
“If some one spread a rumour that the SLTA were distributing tournament entry forms at junctions and bus stops (in the days before the Nationals) that would’ve been believable – it obviously had gotten that desperate for organizers to make up the numbers,’’ remarked an anonymous official in jest. “I’ve seen quite a few past nationals and can’t recall any event beginning from the quarterfinal stage. This year, it is difficult to find one event that has pre-quarterfinal matches – it’s sad that the Nationals have come to this sorry pass.’’
The Men’s Singles has 18 aspirants, which means there’ll be just nine matches, all of which, bar one, will be quarterfinals. The winner, so, is most likely to take the national title after just three matches; an easy path to becoming the king of Sri Lanka tennis, you’ll agree. To become queen might be even easier: just 15 are in the fray, 14 will play straightaway in seven quarterfinals. The 15th player gets a bye, normally reserved for the top seed, directly to the semifinals. So, it is perfectly possible that the title favourite, the top seed, would’ve won the national title after just two matches. “If a National Singles event can be won after just two matches, that’s a serious devaluation of what is the country’s most prestigious title,’’ said a past singles champion. “As one-time singles champion, I feel diminished.’’
None of the Doubles events managed to draw double-digit entries: the Men’s doubles could scrounge up eight competing pairs while Women’s and Mixed Doubles, six pairs each. This could well mean that the eventual winners of each of three doubles events would take the title by winning just two matches. A field of six pairs puts the Women’s Doubles in conflict with the tournament rules. The Nationals is considered the premier ranking tournament of the island and carries more ranking points than any other competition. The criterion for awarding ranking points is that the event should have a field of eight pairs. With just six in the race, one option before the organizers would’ve been to drop the Women’s Doubles from the card; they instead settled for the second option: stage the event but not award ranking points. The Mixed Doubles, which also features six pairs, however doesn’t contravene the minimum-eight criteria as the event doesn’t carry ranking points anyway.
When a National Championship gets as skeletal as this one, questions inevitably are raised. The SLTA boasts a registered player-base of around 40,000, and if just 32 players can’t be drawn (for the island’s premier competition) from that vast reservoir, then, something is seriously amiss. Or is it that, despite claims of professionalism, grass root development and what have you, tennis remains a recreational sport yet – catering mostly to old timers battling their bulges.
To be fair, it has to be said a shortage of senior players worthy of participation at the national isn’t exactly a new dilemma facing the SLTA. After all, you don’t expect anyone who can swing a racquet to scrap for National titles.
Then the question arises: aren’t there enough around worthy of Nationals participation? It has to be quickly reminded that tennis is not cricket, rugby or athletics, meaning the numbers in tennis are never in abundance, especially in schools. The reason for that vary from the lack of initiative to broaden the base at the school level, the heavy cost to setup the required infrastructure in places where there isn’t any and, of course, a poverty of resources to make the sport more widely-played than in its traditional enclaves, which is Colombo.
Despite the aforesaid shortcomings, it would be incorrect to say that the sport is in a moribund state. The poverty of entries might reduce this National Championship to, well, let’s just say to not being Nationals. But past championships haven’t been this lackluster. Besides some events of old featuring overseas competitors, there was always, unfailingly, a sizeable presence of quality local players – all of which made the National Championships an event for your diary.
The Nationals lost some of its appeal in the late ‘90s due to the unimaginative administration of the time. But a turnaround was effected at the turn of the century, thanks mainly to a highly successful junior coaching programme that threw up a crop of rich young talent that replaced the ageing champions of the ‘90s. One among the new crop was Harshana Godamanna, presently Sri Lanka’s no.1. There were more than another half-dozen others, including Franklin Emmanuel, who at 14 was the country’s youngest ever National Singles champion. Another, Amrit Rupasinghe, won an under-18 ITF title and played in the Davis Cup as a schoolboy. Sanjay Wijemanne and Nishendran were the programme’s two other promising products.
Thus the question that begs an answer is why were these players absent from the ongoing Nationals? It’s because all of them are away in the US, on tennis scholarships. Godamanna’s batch mates of that junior coaching programme have been in the US for between three and five years; bar Rupasinghe, none of the others returned to play in the Nationals ever since their leaving.
It is easy to conclude that these players have been unfair by the SLTA, who after all nurtured them to championship level. But it’s a fact of life that one follows where opportunity for one’s betterment is, where ever that is. So don’t blame their absence for the lack participants for the Nationals – or the SLTA. After all, to arrest the “migration’’ of talent is beyond SLTA’s control. And so there can be no guarantee that the Tennis Nationals will always derive the benefits it deserves, in terms of the quality and in the quantity of players it attracts.
But there are other things the controlling body might do to preserve the importance of the event, five years away from celebrating its centenary – like not charge players exorbitant fees just so that they can compete. Presently, the entry fee per event is Rs. 1,500. Presuming a player wishes to compete in the Singles and both of the Doubles, he/she will be set back by Rs.4, 500 – an investment requiring second thoughts given that elimination in the first outing is a prospect.
The fee for junior Nationals isn’t different: Rs.1, 500. It is customary for most of the better junior players to compete in the Senior Nationals too. So, competing in all of the three major events in both divisions means forking out a whopping Rs.10, 000. And we thought we heard the SLTA proclaim that it was going to open tennis’ doors to the less affluent (read: grass root).
“It’s plausible that the costly entry-fee reduced the number of entries. It will be interesting to find out how many of the better juniors players who didn’t enter this year for the senior events, something they did previously. You have to agree that it isn’t to make up your mind to part with Rs.10, 000 to play in the Nationals,’’ said an official on condition of anonymity. “Unless, there’s a reasonable chance of recouping through prize money, not many juniors would be willing to splash ten-thousand smackers for the sake of gaining experience.’’
SLTA officials will point out that the Nationals’ prize money of Rs.310, 000 is far and away over what other tournaments place on the table – and so it’s only logical to ask players to pay more if they want to bid for big prize money. Though that’s a sensible theory, it forgets the fact that losers outnumber winners, and as one with socialist leaning might point out that any practice that profits from ( a mass of ) losers is exploitative. “I am not speaking specifically about tennis, but I know of many sport bodies that have made a business of entry fees. They have myriad of events, events for under-11s all the way up to over-55, and charge entry fee for each of them,’’ said Oliver Guruge, President of the Squash Federation – adding that the Federation’s entry fee per event for the Nationals is Rs.200 for juniors and Rs.250 for seniors.
Entry fee for the Badminton Nationals: Rs.300 for Singles and Rs.500 for Doubles; juniors pay Rs.200 (singles) Rs.300 (doubles), according to Guruge, one-time vice president of the Badminton Association. Tennis’ overheads might be more than what badminton and squash might have to bear. But sport administration is not only about balancing red figures with the ones in blue – it’s more about providing the facilities and opportunities so as to develop local talent to a level where they can hold their own in international competition. The exorbitant fee asked of prospective National players is, well, like being left out even before the race has started.
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