The Sri Lanka National Tennis Championships moves up to the Mercedes Benz class ? with the 92nd edition this week being staged under the banner of the vehicle regarded as a symbol of distinction.
The name-change to the country`s premier tennis championships is the consequence of Dimo Agencies, the Benz people in Sri Lanka, securing the event`s sponsorship rights. `As the local representative of a prestigious car, it is only logical that we should tie up with the country`s most prestigious local tennis event,`` said Ranjith Pandithage, Chairman of Dimo. `The two were meant for each other. And I am hopeful that the quality of the tennis will be as good as our product.``
Janaka Bogollagama, SLTA president, responded: `We are delighted to be associated with a high-class name such as Mercedes Benz, and I am confident the quality of tennis that will served up will be just as good as the name under which the event will be staged.``
Dimo also sponsored the Sri Lanka Davis Cup campaign, investing Rs.2.5m. in the team`s preparation for last month`s eight-nation tie in Colombo. `Stepping in to assist the Nationals after investing millions in the Sri Lanka Davis Cup squad only last month, the SLTA is fortunate to have found a true friend in Dimo,`` said Bogollagama.
Fittingly, a dash of history will be attached to the August 13-26 Mercedes Benz National Tennis Championships: after 92 years of clay courts, the event for the first time moves on to the hard courts, the most popular surface worldwide.
The honour of baptizing the hard courts (completed last April at a whopping cost of Rs.15 million), however, went to the eight-nation Davis Cup Group 3 tie last month ? whose exciting, quality tennis is expected to impact on the Mercedes Benz event.
`The Davis Cup attracted the sort of enthusiastic support tennis unseen in a long, long time. I believe that the outstanding Davis Cup efforts of our players, especially Godamanna`s, have gone to create new public interest in tennis ? something that might be in evidence at the Nationals,`` said Lionel Almeida.
Though Davis Cup hero, Harshana Godamanna, and second singles representative, Renouk Wijemanne, have returned to their training bases in Thailand and the US respectively, the men`s singles yet holds exciting prospects. The absence of particularly Godamanna, men`s champion of the past two nationals, means the single crown will be up for grabs. It is anybody`s guess who the new singles champion will be, though the battle, in essence, is between the old brigade and the young Turks.
Expected to lead the challenge of the oldsters is Rajeev Rajapakse, who made significant contributions to Sri Lanka`s successes in the doubles of the Davis Cup. He is an exceedingly gifted player, and if the quantum of the optician`s success hasn`t quite measured up to his talents, then, it`s because he has had to devote more time to his business than to tennis.
Rohan de Silva, the non-playing Davis Cup captain, won`t be making up the numbers only. By far the most matured player, de Silva, who made his Davis Cup debut in 1990, is thought to be the most dedicated player around. The 30-year-old`s commitment is just as serious as it was during his younger days and is expected to match the younger players, shot for shot.
Heading the young challenge will be Shanka Atukorale, the 20-year-old who, though a member of the Davis Cup team, sat out the entire competition. The former President`s College, Kotte, student`s challenge, however, will be equipped with the benefits of the Davis Cup training he underwent, including a month under Dominik Utzinger in Thailand. Dinusha Wijesuriya, however, won`t be unfazed by Atukorale`s credentials as he overcame the latter in one of three selection-trial matches. Michael Siyaguna, too, is expected to present a serious young challenge, having been a part of the Davis Cup training squad prior to selections.
The point of interest in the women`s singles will be Jithmie Jayawickrema`s hat-trick bid. The 16-year-old Bishops College student, like Godamanna in the men`s, won the singles in the past two years. She is currently in outstanding form, having advanced to the semi-finals of ITF under 18 Damascus International and shooting up 142 places in the ITF junior world rankings, to 556.
She will be the women`s singles favourite, but experience will have taught Jayawickrema not to assume the title. Nilupul Gunasekera has long been her bug-bear, and won`t rule out the chance of toppling the champion. Holy Family Convent`s Amritha Muttiah, also equipped with international experience, can be a potential champion.
It points to two weeks of keen competition on the new hard courts of the SLTA in Green Path.