Previewing Sri Lanka Tennis Nationals – Part 3


by Revata S. Silva

Today, the Hill Club is a popular tourist destination located at No.29, Grand Hotel Road, Nuwara Eliya adjoining the Nuwara Eliya Golf Club on one side and the upcountry residence of Sri Lanka’s President on the other.

Founded nearly 135 years ago in 1876 by British coffee planters, it lies more than 2,000 metres above sea level with a structure constructed mainly of stone and timber giving an imposing picture from the front. Set in fascinating upcountry surroundings, flanked by the famous Single Tree Mountain at the rear and views across the Pidurutalagala Mountains in front, this essentially England-like destination, nearly five hours away from Colombo, would have provided the then British expatriates an ideal place to indulge in an essentially English pastime like tennis, then called Lawn Tennis.

This went on to be the first venue for the Ceylon Lawn Tennis Association (CLTA) established in 1915 under President (Sir) Robert Chalmers, the then Governor. Until the CLTA was shifted in 1954 to its present location, where there had been the prestigious Garden Club that time, a place called ‘Challet’ in Nuwara Eliya, owned by the Hill Club, has been house to the national tennis controlling body. The following book extract proves the CLTA owned ‘the Challet’ from 1928-73.

"In 1928 by indenture No. 745, the Hill Club Co. Ltd. sold "The Challet" on 22 perches and the Tennis Court premises at Nuwara Eliya to the Ceylon Lawn Tennis Association on 17th February 1928, for Rs. 10,000/- and Rs. 15,000/- respectively. The Hill Club bought them back for Rs. 30,000/- on a resolution passed by the Committee of the S.L.T.A. on 2nd November 1973. The Trustees of the Association who transferred the deeds in 1928 were Gresham Johnson and M. B. Baillie-Hamilton and in 1973 the Trustees were A. C. Gooneratne, Cedric T. de Silva and Lyn Fernando."

- Pg. 84, ‘75 Years of Sri Lanka Tennis Association’, compiled by D. Lam Seneviratne, 1990

In addition, the clay courts of the Hill Club have been the venue for most of the Nationals from 1884 to 1971. That means the champions of yesteryear, F. de Fonblanque, D. E. Kelly, S. P. Hayley, Lisboa Pinto, Hildon Sansoni, F. J. ‘Koo’ de Saram, G. O. Nicholas, C. I. Gunasekera, Rupert Ferdinands, P. Senaka Kumara, Lasantha Fernando (in men’s), R. Elliot, C. Gilliat, G. D. H. Alston, Doreen Sansoni, Sheila Roberts, C. R. Warren, ‘Coo Coo’ Fonseka and Ranjani Jayasuriya (in women’s), have had to make the long journey to play in the chilly township to win those accolades.

The Hill Club courts have been graced by champions of international fame on numerous occasions and some of them, particularly Indians like N. Krishnaswamy, Ramanathan Krishnan, S. C. Misra, S. Akthar Ali and Ms. K. Singh, taking part in the Nationals giving a tough time to local participants.

The Nationals had been almost always held at the Hill Club to coincide with the April holiday festive season of Nuwara Eliya which featured horse racing, hill climb, car and motorcycle races and flower exhibitions. Now during the April festive season, the club holds only a ‘B’ Grade open ranking tournament sanctioned by the SLTA, the mother body of tennis situated at the busy environs of Colombo 7.

"The opportunity is taken here to sound a note of warning to those who make the trip to Nuwara Eliya that they can never hope to go far in any championship meet unless they are "fighting fit." This is the one season of the year when gaiety abounds at Nuwara Eliya, but that in itself, is no reason why players should not be moderate in the observance of their other social activities – at least for the duration of the tournament. No one will grudge them their enjoyment but it was clearly evident that they were out to have a good time regardless of their obligations to tennis fans who came in hundreds to watch the matches."

- An extract from the article titled ‘There is something wrong in Ceylon tennis’ which appeared in The Ceylon Causerie, June 1947.

(In the next part on Monday, July 25 – ‘National champions of yesteryear’)

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