The story of a quaint old tennis club
Beside the ‘exclusively for the whites only" hospital on Frazer Road during the apartheid days, stood and stands a tennis club set up by the British public servants who took their work and tennis seriously and were allergic to the drinking habits of the clubs in the days of the Raj, established a mineral water drinking club that put up its shutters at sundown.
As the diaries of a retiring GA of the colonial days inscribed "... in the evening a train of prams stood a safe distance from the tennis court while the ladies exchanging pleasantries watched for a while their husbands serve and smash before the child’s howling originated on being stationary".
My PD (during my limited planting days) Jock Allan, a typical frugal Scot planter on Dickwella Estate in Hali Ella on hearing that I played tennis at this club recounted that the hospital next door were his free lodgings (instead of booking a guest room at the expensive Swimming Club) on company account on the pretext of a medical check up when he had to come to Colombo annually to get his visa extended.
He never failed to park his convertible Morris Minor in the club premises serenading an English nightingale, having escaped from the matron’s watchful eyes, stealing a nurse off duty in the process. As long as I remembered the club had gateposts without gates for free and easy parking.
It was a delight to watch the canny serves of the many Civil Servants (CCS) and the few Supreme Court judges. Obviously they had taken to tennis without any proper coaching and developed styles unique hitherto unknown in any reputed tennis manual. Ronnie de Mel’s under arm first service was more deadly than any cannon ball; Justice A. L.S. Sirimanne served in long bell bottom trousers that swept the court more than the sweeper and were more overpowering than his judgments; Lakshman de Mel’s (the clubs eternal member) deceptive left arm service took the gravitations of a man slicing a tomato with an ungainly hip swing and Justice Weerasooriya’s majestic natural flowing silver mane like his court room wig, often unsighted the receiver of a deceptive serve.
N.Q. Dias rushed from the Defense and Foreign Affairs Ministry to the tennis court and changed his white national dress to white shorts at home in a hurry to be the first on the clay courts for a game of singles with the club boy, aged Tuan, who played in sarong and bare feet and sometimes gracefully allowed my father to win after a supposedly hard fight to make him feel good for the rest of the day.
My companion Srinath Sirimanne (son of Justice A.L.S) was probably the best player of all times at the club and went to captain his school in the Pubs. Sadly he died early; before that he threw me a few points for old times sake when Ananda played against his champion team.
The ladies quartet was a group that played to win and it mattered little how they played the game. On one side was mercurial Monica Guneratne with her sister, Lady Christobel Rajapakse (a perfect lady), as against the very proper and correct Visakha teacher Ranjini de Mel partnered by that graceful MP, Mrs. Pathmanathan. In those days ladies played in white sari. It was known that their line calls were indeed close calls that the men would have happily referred to a television replay. Women made quick work of it by calling often in their favor.
Members chatted while waiting for a repeat game and Tuan served ginger beer to order in outsize tumblers picked from a tub filled with ice. The bare bar rack was a colonial relic but the content was limited to a few products from Elephant House. The ‘club boy’ as he was known and called used it as his stand to write the drink chit.
The etiquette of a club without a constitution was as proper as in the kachcheri the nursery from where the members originated. It was more a car to court, court to car tennis style with hardly time for small talk or socializing.
Tuan often smacked the ball boys then called ‘pickers’ if a member lodged a complaint. As expected, the judicial officers often made the complainants since even on the tennis court they lived covered in cotton wool and watched Tuan’s palm strike an ear in an era where discipline was maintained instead of humanitarian laws.
The "Long Rally" is a delightful book of a quaint old club (Government Servants Tennis Club at Joseph Frazer Road) left untouched edited lovingly on being sourced caringly by Lakshman de Mel, which is the untold story of the book. The list of elite public servants that adorned the club could have stayed any acquisition order. Let the private sector not take over this club and change its venerable name for before long a section 2 & 4 notices will arrive and the membership will be left with paltry compensation.