Sunday, April 9, 2017

Sewmina Gunathilaka reflects on singles and doubles

In general, there is an inverse relationship between movement and concentration when it comes to racket games. The rule is simple enough: the smaller the field, the more limited your chances are to move around. At one level this eases pressure, at another level it does not. Within a smaller field, after all, you have to concentrate well to defeat your opponent. Perhaps that’s why there are as many strategies for winning (and losing) a game like tennis, badminton, and squash as there are for cricket, football, and rugby.

No one really knows the history of badminton. Like most indoor games, it probably evolved as a sport reserved for those who could afford racquets, shuttlecocks, nets, and the luxury of time and leisure. Going by this, it probably also was at the outset an insular pastime, unlike the more plebeian cricket and rugby.

Whether or not this is how it began, however, we do know that badminton has today morphed into a mass sport, which invites spectators, cheering squads, and championships that cut across schools, zones, districts, and countries. Because Sri Lanka has in general performed well in badminton, I am sure that those who take to it do so from a very early age. Sewmina Gunathilaka is no exception.

Sewmina has achieved. For his age. He did his O Levels in 2015 and will do his A Levels in 2018. He has played badminton as a private player and then through his school and various zonal, national, and international championships. I will not contend that he is up there or that he can go up without crossing some hard yards, but I do know that he aspires. Given his achievements (which I will get to, shortly), I can hence only say that he will go up if he tries hard enough.

Before I sketch out his biography, however, I ask him as to what intrigues him about badminton. He replies that unlike most outdoor sports, it forces the player to think and to both preserve and expend energy. I think he himself puts it best: “Unlike cricket, you don’t really need to prepare for a tournament. You come, you play, and you leave. It’s as simple as that. What defines badminton then isn’t how you prepare, but rather how you engage with your opponent in a way which tires him and allows you to move ahead without in turn being tired by him.”

Since this is a good premise for a personal sketch, I prod him about how he first got into the game. Apparently Sewmina had taken after his brother, Dhakshika, who emerged as a champion a decade ago. Dhakshika, however, had started out playing rugby in Grade Five before being encouraged to divert to badminton by their mother. “Aiya eventually triumphed at his school, becoming the Most Outstanding Player and clinching practically every championship in 2008,” Sewmina remembers.

2008 in that sense was a crucial year for him too, since he decided to join his school team then. Before that, he had gone for private classes conducted by the then Coach at his school (Ananda College), K. S. Pushpakumara. “It was Mr Pushpakumara who encouraged me to leave his class and enter the College team,” Sewmina tells me, “I had been taught by him ever since I was in Grade Three, so he knew me well enough to decide when I should try out my luck at a trial.” He emerged fourth at that trial, which was held sooner than he’d thought. He was 10 at the time.

From then on, his achievements kept coming. He first flaunted his colours as an Under 10 player in a team match by clinching doubles victories against Royal College at the semi-finals and Rahula College at the finals. He then captained the Under 12 Team, winning his first championship in 2013. He graduated to the Zonal Championship in 2012 and to the National Championship in 2013. “My baptism of fire with the latter was when I had to face Thilina Gonapinuwala from Richmond College, then the Number Two Under 13 player in the country. Call it a miracle, but I ended up defeating him. My rank went up automatically.”

Needless to say, I am impressed by his subsequent achievements. Here's an attempt at a summary.

Locally he has triumphed at the Nuwara Eliya All Island Open Badminton, the Ariyadasa Silva All Island Open Badminton, the North Central Province All Island Open Badminton, and the SSC Open Badminton Championships, all of which saw him emerge as the Under 17 Boys Singles winner and the latter of which had him as a Doubles winner. In addition to these, he has also been a Singles and Doubles Runner Up at the Junior National Badminton Championship.

Internationally he has performed as highly. In 2013, he played at the Asian Junior Under 15 / 17 Championship. In 2014, he played at the same Championship in Thailand. In 2015, however, on account of his O Levels and of the fact that he lost two matches, he was not selected (“Besides, that year we did not have an Under 15 / 17 Team to send”), though he regained his footing the following year at both the Asian Junior Championship (the Under 19 in Thailand and the Under 15 / 17 in Indonesia, the latter of which he captained) and the World Junior Championship in Spain.

As far as titles and tournaments go, therefore, Sewmina has clinched quite a number of victories for his age. But are they enough to sum him up? I personally think not, which is why I delve into his attitude towards the game he’s grown to thrive on. To start things off here, I ask him as to what his strategy is. Almost at once he says that of all the factors that go into a tournament, he values concentration and stamina the most. I ask him to elaborate. He complies.

“Badminton is very much an individualist sport. It depends on the individual player’s strengths and weaknesses. While I won’t say I am exceptionally good at anything, I will say that I am better when it comes to stamina and endurance. So I first try to tire my opponent before properly engaging him. Once I know that he’s fatigued, I close the game with a series of quick shots. I suppose that explains why I prefer a singles to a doubles, because with the former you know your opponent well enough to ascertain when he’s flushed out and ready to be defeated.”

I ask him whether this is his brother’s strategy as well. “Not really. Aiya is more of an attacker. He prefers to concentrate. He deceives the player into thinking he’s slowed down, and then launches one assault after another. That is his forte. Not my forte. I prefer to go quick in the first few shots, because I don’t like to take risks later on. You must understand here that inasmuch as badminton is an indoor sport, you are still bombarded with noise. This tends to unnerve you. Only a true professional can route his opponent, using every front he can muster, despite that noise. I concede that as of yet, I have not graduated to that level.”

Like every player and performer this column got me acquainted with, Sewmina has not limited his interests to one field. He is also an Athlete (having triumphed in several circuit and zonal meets, over both 800 and 1,500 meters) and an Interactor. I am pretty sure he has other interests up his sleeve, though I don’t ask after them. Whether he will pursue his studies to the exclusion of his love for badminton, however, only time will tell. Until time delivers that verdict, we can watch, listen to, and if possible read him. That will be enough to engage both player and fan, I suspect.

Written for: The Island YOUth, April 9 2017