Skepticism over the defence services’ enlistment of six top tennis players, all Davis Cup representatives, is understandable. Bad memories of a like-intrusion by the services into rugby last season are too recent to forget. Rugby clubs, you will remember, were thrown into convulsions following the indiscriminate pinching of its better players by the Navy and the Air Force.
These raids left at least one club, one-time giants Havelock SC, so impoverished that it couldn’t muster a team – and so scratched from this year’s Clifford Cup knockout tournament. Another club found that some of its players, down to play in the weekend, had defected to the Navy and Air Force – a day before the match. The exodus was perhaps best encapsulated by one wit’s description of the Navy v. Kandy SC Clifford Cup final of last season as a home-and-home affair; the preponderance of ex-Kandy players was so great in the Navy XV.
Needless to say, the services’ audacious recruiting method dealt a severe blow to the established system – and left clubs worrying about their future. After all, if clubs continue to lose their quality players to the services, the consequences aren’t difficult to guess: the prize table will be for the services’ to take – as well as the largest slice of the sponsorship pie. Even at the present level of sponsorship support, it has been pretty much a skate on thin ice for a majority of the clubs, bar perhaps, Kandy SC and the CR. So, having to make do with leaner budgets becomes, well, as difficult as skating on water.
It has to be said however, that although the services’ recruitment method might be unethical, illegal it is not – no sir; we live in the age professionalism and where the money is, is where the talent drifts.
What impact the defence services’ acquisition of the clubs’ better products might have on rugby overall is too premature to judge. Who is to know that, given servicemen’s strict adherence to discipline and obedience to authority, the defence services might well provide a more conducive condition than the less regimented environment of private clubs to enhance the competence of players to an international level? For now though, rugby is at crossroads.
No such crossroads lie ahead of tennis simply because no one is hurt by the defence services’ break-in, unlike the hemorrhage caused to rugby clubs. This is not to say that tennis is not club-based – the SLTA membership book includes 36 affiliated clubs. The gain of the services is thus going to be the loss of some clubs.
But rugby’s cut-throat competition to secure top players doesn’t exist in tennis, whose inter-club competition is, well, pretty much the unglamorous sister in comparison to the Cinderella that is rugby’s inter-club tournament. A tennis club is unlikely to chew on its gizzard over the loss of a player or two to the services.
If anything, players representing the services’ might well go to ginger up the long-moribund inter-club tournament; a competition that year-in-year-out ponderously plods its weary way through three months, unpublicized and unnoticed. Since tennis players aren’t contracted to clubs (read: unpaid), their loyalty and commitment isn’t quite as passionate as the rugby players are to their clubs, which hand out generous pay cheques. You’ll never see the fierce emotions expressed on-and-off rugby fields on tennis courts. And it wouldn’t be wrong to say that the nature of tennis’ inter-club tournament is more recreational than competitive.
That state of affairs will change with powerful teams from the services entering the tennis’ inter-club fray. They are all contracted players (read: salaried) and the inter-club tournament will be the only recognised open competition in which players can pay-back their new employers. As well, the employers themselves will want to see returns on their investment through success in the inter-club tournament. Against that backdrop, a chance presents itself to instill a greater competitive spirit into a tournament that previously, seemingly, merely went through the motions.
The potential benefits from the services’ recruitment foray into tennis are not only in the enriching of a lackluster parochial tournament. Before we dwell on those likely benefits, let’s reflect on The Sunday Leader of a fortnight ago which under the headline, “Navy, Air Force Now Raid The Tennis Cupboard” broke the news of recruitment of six of the top-ten ranked tennis players.
The most significant point of that piece of news is that the two services had plumped for nothing less than the best crop of players around. All six are Davis Cup representatives, which, in cricketing equivalence translate to test players. The Navy signed up national champion and our number one Davis Cup Singles player, Harshana Godamanna. As well, Sanka Athukorale and Gayanga Weerasekera, both Davis Cup representatives, both teenagers and emerging champions were put on the Navy payroll.
Not to be outdone, the Air Force enlisted Sri Lanka’s number two, Thangarja Dineshkanthan, the 19-year old who celebrated his recent Davis Cup debut with a win in the reverse singles of the tie against Hong Kong. The more useful enlistment, however, has to be Rajiv Rajapakse, who, with more than a decade of Davis Cup experience can contribute meaningfully to the development of Air Force tennis in more ways than in competitions alone. As well, at 29, Rajapakse still remains a serious challenger of any singles title, although he’s now a greater asset in the doubles. The Air Force’s third signing: Arthur Hewacotdage, another teenage Davis Cup representative.
They receive a monthly salary ranging from Rs. 30,000 – Rs. 35,000, not the sort of money earned by professional players who rank 500-600 places behind the likes of Nadal and Federer. But for tennis players who’ve never known pay days, the salaries they’re now receiving is manna from heaven. One or two among the six, of course, are of wealthy stock anyway, but pay days in tennis isn’t about money alone.
“The amounts (paid by the services) won’t make our tennis players millionaires. But at least a start has been made to remunerate players for their services – and that I am sure is greatly appreciated by the players,” said Rohan de Silva, long-time Davis Cup player turned selector. “Playing tennis has now been given a new meaning – the sport is beginning to look like a job worth doing. Hopefully, if companies follow the example of the services, then our tennis would’ve embraced the codes of professionalism. Ideally, it would be nice if our players can earn their keep from the pro circuit, like the top players of other countries do. But Sri Lanka tennis is a long way away from that utopian state – and until our tennis develops to that point, salaries for players is a very acceptable – and necessary – alternative.”
Time will tell if the corporate world will follow suit, but another source of employment for tennis players is certain: Army. It has recruited Jagath Welikela as coach, specifically to scout for worthy tennis players. “The Navy and Air Force have already taken a good portion of the top players and the cupboard presently is pretty bare now,” said Welikela. “If there aren’t top players around to recruit, we’ll just have to look at emerging players in the second-tier and make champions of them ourselves. There’s no question of backing out (of recruiting tennis players).”
The big question is how helpful or not will the services’ recruitment of top players be to the national cause, which is Davis Cup elevation. After ten years of trying, Sri Lanka succeeded in achieving promotion to Group Two in 2009 – only to drop back to Group Three in 2010. The chief reason for the stagnation is because consistently our promising young players leave to the US on tennis scholarships – never to return. Presently, at least three youngsters, including the youngest ever National Singles champion as well as an Under-18 ITF Singles title winner, who might’ve been automatic choices to the national team are away in the US.
“Now that a job market (in the services) is before our tennis players, I am optimistic that the drain of our better young players to the US can be arrested,” said Dinith Pathiraja, the Air Force tennis coach. “Of course, there are players who’d settle for nothing less than a US scholarship. But there are other players, especially the ones from less affluent families, who can’t dare to even dream of the US… for them a job opening in the services, a job that provides the opportunity to pursue their playing career, is, well, heaven-sent.”
The three recruited by the Air Force, according to Pathiraja, will undergo three months of basic military drill in Diyatalawa – the only period in which they will remotely function as regular servicemen. “(Otherwise) their time is for training, though they can, if they wish to, pursue a trade within the force. Their number one priority is tennis,” said Pathiraja.
One of the reasons why Sri Lanka cricket rose to the level it did is because a way was made for outstation players to join the mainstream. Successive tennis administrators have spoken about treading cricket’s path and indeed launched quite some campaigns to develop the game at a junior level. “Around 300 players representing 20-25 schools figure in the inter-schools tournaments – of them ten to 12 are outstation schools. They compete in five different age groups; from a national perspective, you’ll have to say that the Under-19 segment is the most crucial as that would be the feeder to the mainstream,” said Pathiraja.
“The U-19 has about 30-40 players who, as next year’s school-leavers, ought to be playing at the senior level. But the number of school-leavers who pursue the sport is negligible. Naturally, their interest turns to higher studies or employment – and so the game is effectively without feeder system. Making jobs available in the services should eventually install the feeder.”
Whatever the services’ raid might’ve done to rugby clubs, a like-incursion into tennis clubs is fresh winds blowing through our tennis world. “With a job market before them, you’d probably see outstation players taking to the game more earnestly – initially to land a job, and then it will be our job to convert their ambitions to playing big-time tennis,” says Pathiraja.