A BRIEF HISTORY OF TENNIS IN SRI LANKA

SLTA to celebrate 100 years in 2015SLTA to celebrate 100 years in 2015



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The historic Rs. 8 and Rs. 1 stamps issued by the Sri Lanka government headed by President Ranasinghe Premadasa to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the SLTA in 1990. D. L. Seneviratne was the then President of the SLTA.


The earliest history of tennis in Sri Lanka goes back to mid 1800s. The game was introduced by the Suddhas as it was the case with cricket and rugby. The records show that coffee planter P. F. Hadow, who is none other than the Wimbledon Singles winner of 1878 defeating Spencer W. Gore in the final, has been based in Sri Lanka, named Ceylon then, after his memorable achievement.


F. Dornhorst was the President of the first recorded tennis club of Ceylon, the Pettah Tennis Club, formed in 1885. An inter-district tournament had been played in 1886 at Dickoya. Tennis clubs were being established since early 1900 at places like Colombo (the Colombo Garden Club estd. in 1892), Kandy, Gampola, Ratnapura, Bogawantalawa, Kotmale, Talawakele, etc. The Fort Tennis Club, founded in 1887, was one time considered one of the oldest tennis clubs to survive in Asia.


In 1884, the National Championships began. C. H. A. Ross was the first Men’s Singles winner beating J. Parsons in the finals. E. de Fonblanque was the most prominent men’s player during the time winning 10 Singles titles, including the feat of four-in-a-row twice. Dr. Hugh Keith, the 1890 runner-up, was the first Ceylonese to earn a name for himself in the international scene. Fred and E. R. de Saram, two brothers, became the first natives to win the National Doubles title when they beat F. F. Roe and J. B. Dufall in the Nationals of 1913.


The Ceylon Lawn Tennis Association (CLTA) was formed by a few planters and tennis enthusiasts in 1915. The then Governor Robert Chalmers was its first President. Till 1946, the island’s Governor used to be the CLTA President under its Constitution. But it was R. G. Coombe, Hon. Secretary of CLTA from 1920, played the lead role in the body and was later named the Father of Ceylonese Tennis. Lionel Fonseka, another stalwart of local tennis, served the CLTA from 1927-58 becoming its President for two years, from 1956-58. The CLTA used to have its headquarters at a place called ‘Chalet’ at Nuwara Eliya which was owned by famous ‘Hill Club’ from the year 1928. The CLTA was shifted to Colombo in 1954.


CLTA Presidents such as K. T. E. de Silva and T. Thiruchittampalam, Lionel Fonseka and V. A. Sugathadasa (after whose name the Sugathadasa Stadium was named later) made early negotiations with the Colombo Municipal Council to get a property to the Association from the then existing Garden Club which was an exclusive reserve for the British expacts in Colombo. ‘The Sri Lanka Tennis Association,’ truly became an association giving voting rights for its affiliate clubs when it was under Thiruchittampalam, in 1971.


It is still based at its same, original place at Sir Marcus Fernando Mawatha, Green Path, Colombo-7. People like D. L. Seneviratne and Suresh Subramaniam played a key role as SLTA Presidents in shaping up local tennis in more recent times, especially since the 1980s.


Hildon Sansoni, ‘Koo’ de Saram, Bernard Pinto, Rupert Ferdinands, C. I. Gunasekera, Lasantha Fernando, P. S. Kumara (in men’s) and Doreen Sansoni and Sheila Roberts (women’s) became well known tennis champions during 1930s to 1970s.


In the 1934 Nationals, world renowned players like Fred Perry of Britain, Harry Hopman (Australia), J. Fujikuma (Japan) and E. Maier (Spain) featured in exhibition matches. Dr. C. H. Gunasekera, a Middlesex and All Ceylon cricketer and father of C.I. , became one of the players in the team that went on the inaugural overseas tennis tour, in 1937 to Madras, India. The same year saw, as the record books say, Henri Cochet, one of the famous ‘Four Musketeers’ of France, playing at the Colombo Orient Club, against one of its sarong-clad groundsman named Jansz! Two years later W. T. Tilden played in Colombo in an exhibition match.


In 1944, the then CLTA conducted its first-ever Inter-club Tennis Tournament and, four years later, the first Junior and Public Schools Championships began to take place in Colombo.


In 1949, (Miss) Doreen Sansoni became the first to win an important Asian regional title as she became All-India Women’s Singles winner. Giant international figures in tennis continued to feature in Colombo tennis events as the Colombo Plan Bureau organised exhibition matches from the year 1952. In those, Frank Sedgeman and Doris Hart were stunning performers. Indian legendary player Ramanathan Krishnan won Ceylon Nationals Singles title in 1956. During 1956-58, Sedgeman, Krishnan, Althea Gibson (women’s world No.2 then), Jack Kramer and Ken Rosewall played exhibition matches at the CLTA.


Sri Lanka played in her first Davis Cup in 1953 against Netherlands in a European Zone tie —the choice of Zones was up to the particular country at that time— and lost 5-0. Sri Lanka was involved in a great rivalry with the strong Indians, for two long decades, in the Davis Cup. Notably, the Indians feature now in an upper division (Zone) in the Davis Cup.


The early ’70s saw Thiruchittampalam, H. C. Sansoni and A. T. Pereira holding high positions in the Davis Cup International Committees. ‘Tiru’ in fact was one time umpire at Wimbledon (1974). It is reported that the prestigious Queen’s Club, situated at Bauddhaloka Mawatha, Colombo used to have two grass courts in the early ’70s.


The early ’70s saw players like Suresh Sivagnanam, who became Sri Lanka No.1 at the age of 16, and Arjun Fernando (6 times National Singles champion including a record five-in-a-raw from 1984-88), enter centre stage.


The ’80s saw the emergence of players such as Umesh Wallooppillai, Rohan de Silva and Jayendra Wijeysekera (in Men’s) and Lihini Weerasuriya, Manisha Perera, Vajira Premaratne, Saranga Sangakkara (elder sister of present SL cricketer Kumar) and, more recently, ones like Franklyn Emmanuel, Harshana Godamanna (Men’s), Jithmie Jayawickrema, Amritha Muttiah (Women’s) dominating the National circuit.


The SLTA became a modern hub of tennis through the 1990s, especially after it held tennis of the 1991 SAARC Games. The introduction of Outstation Junior Tennis Programme and the Wheelchair Tennis played a decisive role in spreading the game in the far off areas of the island.


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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