- US-based Rupasinghe included in squad as Godamanna and co. gear up for crucial July 9-11 Davis Cup tie v. Hong Kong
THE SLTA won itself bragging rights for a year when the country secured promotion to Group Two of the Davis Cup competition last year. It was an admirable achievement after a decade of trying, and though in the wider scheme of things, the feat isn’t quite a scaling of tennis’s Everest, the SLTA’s dizzying euphoria seemed to suggest it was.
The over reaction is forgivable. Ending a ten-year wait, after all, is cause for joy – more so as elevation was least expected in 2009, a year that was beset by the sort of troubles only a government-appointed Interim Committee can manage to inflict on sport. It should not be forgotten that ‘twas during the IC tenure some officials publicly spoke of the “futility’’ of pursing Group Two promotion and questioned the wisdom of investing millions in “chasing dreams’’.
The truth, though, was the SLTA had been bankrupted by the IC and, in fact, had no funds to fly out the team to last year’s Group Three tournament in Damascus. “We had to choose between withdrawing our team (from the competition in Syria) or seek a bank loan to send the team. We chose to go to a bank, and that was the first step taken towards promotion,’’ said SLTA President, Maxwell de Silva, then an IC member himself, in the aftermath of the promotion. Many nasty criticisms may be made of the IC’s rather cavalier administration, but you can’t fake history: the fact is Sri Lanka tennis obtained Group Two promotion under IC stewardship. An elected SLTA, it has to be remembered, was restored after promotion was achieved – which puts the incumbent de Silva-led elected committee in not so an enviable position.
The way de Silva’s men run the sport might be a lot more transparent and efficient than their predecessors, but then an administration is not judged only by how much in the black its bank-account is or the number of “development’’ programmes undertaken. Rather, it is the achievements on the tennis courts. So what ever you might say about the IC, any claims that de Silva’s elected committee is doing a better job of it will have to be testified on court – and that means to at least ensure our status as Group Two nation is retained for another year.
Otherwise, history will record that, after just a year of life in Group Two, Sri Lanka returned to its abode of a decade in Group Three. Critics of the de Silva committee, of course, will put it more harshly: what the IC won, the elected committee goes and loses. And for some ambitious officials, that demotion is enough reason to place before the Sport Minister a case for reintroducing another IC. Remembering the rampant politicization of the SLTA during the near two-year rule of the IC, a return to governance by government-appointed officials has to be considered a prospect not beyond possibility’s realm.
The de Silva committee isn’t unaware of the basis on which they will be judged. In other words, they’re mindful of the fallout of demotion, which is why investments in the campaign to retain Group Two status have been unstinted. It is appropriate at this point to explain what Sri Lanka has to do to keep its Group Two place next year.
Unlike in Group 3 where the competition is multi-nation and matches are best of three sets; Group 2 pits one nation against another and is best of five. Each Group 2 country plays two first- round matches; winners of both ties advance to the second round; winners of one of their two first round matches retain their place in Group 2 and losers of both matches take a ride back to Group Three.
Sri Lanka has already conceded the first of its two first-round matches, to New Zealand last March. With the Kiwis represented by at least two players from the world’s top 300 rankings, their win over a team with no world ranked player, was expected. But what was unexpected was the fierce resistance of the hosts; Sri Lanka came back from 0/2 to level 2/2, winning the doubles and the first reverse singles, in which Harshana Godamanna remarkably outlasted New Zealand’s no.1. But Rajeev Rajapakse’s defeat in the decisive singles match meant Sri Lanka will now have to save its chestnuts in the Hong Kong tie, a fortnight away in Colombo. Defeat here will earn us a return-ticket to Group Three.
That is an outcome the SLTA don’t want, if they can help it. To the de Silva committee’s credit, it’s doing all it can to prevent demotion – like signing on as squad coach Enrico Pepino, the Indian coach who fashioned the future of the likes Sania Mirza and Leander Paes, both one-time Grand Slam titlists. As well, it has provided Godamanna exposure in the Indonesian pro circuit where he did exceptionally well to advance from the qualifiers to the semifinals of an ITF Futures.
Commendably, the SLTA also conscripted into the squad US-based Amrit Rupasinghe. He wasn’t in the squad for the New Zealand tie, and his inclusion means he is a contender, along with T. Dineshkanthan, for the no.2 Singles slot. The coming days will tell if Rupasinghe will replace Rajeev Rajapakse in the singles. The latter is considered a doubles specialist anyway. To be fair, Rajapakse ( recalled for Singles duty over the past two-three seasons only because the likes of young Franklin Emmanuel, Rupasinghe and Oshada Wijemanne were away in US on scholarships) made meaningful Davis Cup contributions, and, in fact, played no small hand in the securing of Group Two promotion last year.
Questions, however, have been raised about his suitability for singles following defeats in both his singles matches against the Kiwis. But it has to be said that he was far from disgraced; he took a set off New Zealand’s no.1.
Rupasinghe was subjected to trials before his inclusion last week, but it must be noted that he was pitted only against Amresh Jayawickrema, the fourth squad member in the NZ tie, and won 7/6, 6/0. 6/1. Whether the US-based player will face a match-up with Rajapakse or whether the latter will, of his own accord, choose to play only in the doubles is not known. There is, however, some merit in naming Rupasinghe as no.2 Singles player. He is 23 years, as opposed to Rajapakse’s 30, and hence is investment in the future. As well, it’s not as if a tenderfoot is put in place of an experienced one; Rupasinghe was Davis Cup representative prior to his US leaving two years ago. More importantly, two years of US tennis would’ve only gone to enhance his game.
Who ever is called for national duty on the clay courts of the SLTA, July 9-11, it’s not going to be a stroll for either. There’s no forgetting the fact that this tie is a battle to avoid relegation, and Hong Kong, too, have left nothing to chance in their preparations. They arrive here on July 1, giving them a week to acclimatize to Colombo’s heat and humidity. The former British colony has also conscripted one of its top US-based players, Martin Sayer, for the tie.
Sri Lanka will take a lot of confidence from the reasoning that if they ran the Kiwis so close, then against a less stern opponent, victory is a more hopeful prospect. That, though, is over-simplified logic. It is fair to say that the Kiwis were weighed down by Colombo’s heat and humidity as much as the Sri Lankans’ powers of perseverance, specifically Godamanna’s. Colombo’s oppressive climate, though, won’t disadvantage Hong Kong as much as it did the Kiwis. Hong Kong’s long summers, June through October can be as stifling as humid Colombo – and so no great home advantage is likely to be had for Godamanna and co.
As the two countries strive to ward-off relegation, the duel surely is going to be long and hard – but the ones who will be sweating most will be officials of de Silva’s elected committee. Running second best to the much maligned IC is a prospect pretty much the same as a forced sauna.