Sunday, May 7, 2017

Yasitha Rangana de Silva: From tennis aspirer to champion

This column got me in touch with a horde of players who’ve performed well on the field and at their studies and continue to be comfortable in both. Like Lashina Rodrigo. And Raveen Antonio. The former plays cricket, the latter rugby. These are hard, tough games to crack, admittedly. What of other games, though? What of badminton, squash, and tennis, indoor and "indoored" as they are? Is that much hyped conflict between sportsmanship and schoolwork as hyped in these three? I would agree. And as proof, I would point at the subject of my piece. Yasitha Rangana de Silva.

Perhaps the best way anyone can sum Yasitha’s achievements (he plays tennis, by the way) is by perusing The Island’s archive of him on Google. The top three search results bring up three different victories: “Yasitha de Silva upsets Dineshkanthan” (April 2015), “Yasitha de Silva, king of the hills” (April 2016), and “Yasitha gets Davis Cup national colours” (May 2016). These three, put together, depict his ascent from schoolboy aspirer to national champion. Before getting to that ascent, however, I ask him to reflect on his life as a player from the beginning.

Yasitha started playing tennis in Grade One. His brother, Anjana de Silva, three years his elder and a balanced player on his own right, was his first figure of destiny. Being rather tall for his age he had also been selected to his school’s basketball team, where he discovered his potential as a left-handed player. Basketball, however, had been difficult for him, so after considering whether to go ahead, he decided to pursue tennis. “I chose instinctively, especially given that basketball left me with a backache and a set of knee injuries.” He was in Grade Eight at the time.

So how were his first stints at the game? “At the beginning it was no more than a passion,” he explains, “When you’re a schoolboy, the first thing you want to do as a player is to win for your school. That is why I looked for cheering squads, for the joy of donning my school colours, whenever I was playing.” His school, incidentally, was Ananda College.

His coaches had obviously sensed this schoolboy streak in him, which led the Head Coach at Ananda, Anupa Maththamagoda, to advice him to look beyond interschool matches. Until 2009, which in more ways than one remains a landmark year for him, Yasitha had gone for private classes during weekends at the Queen’s Club. Maththamagoda’s advice had obviously stung him, for soon enough he shifted to the more formidable SLTA, where he came to be tutored by the even more formidable Niranjan Casie Chetty and which he attended every day of the week. “Mr Maththamagoda told me to focus on Junior Championships, so I aimed for that.”

I described 2009 as a landmark year. I think it's best that I let Yasitha explain why. “I practised. Did some hard yards. Tough, but then because I wasn’t doing my A Levels, I wasn’t worried. I played my first interschool match as an Under 13 player against Royal College at the SLTA, which I won. That empowered me to play harder when I joined the SLT. Eventually, I became the Number One player in both Under 16 and Under 18 categories.”

That last achievement came about in 2011. The following year, he waded on to another achievement: after trying and losing for 16 years, the Under 19 team of his school emerged as Champions at the All Island Inter School Tennis Tournament (held at the SLTA), eventually becoming Overall Champions. I ask Yasitha to recall. He happily obliges.

“That was a personal landmark for me, as an Anandian. I remember the last match in particular. It was against St Peter’s. The first singles was played from our side by Madusha Wijesuriya, followed by a doubles with Navindra Liyanarachchi and Supun Pathirage, in turn followed by another doubles with me and Narain Weerasinghe. That last encounter was the result of a terse choice: do we go for a singles or a combined effort? We opted for the latter. Not many would have, but we went ahead with it. In the end it got us the victory we’d hankered after. We routed St Peter’s 3 to 1.”

Yasitha was by this time aiming for the Davis Cup: in 2011, after wading through 15 matches in one month, he reached the top three slots to enter the National Team. In 2012 he played at some trial matches for the Cup, in 2013 and 2014 he stalled tennis to concentrate on his A Levels, and after 2014 he resumed by playing at various championships abroad. Through all this, however, he did not let go of his sense of proportion: “I could play, but not as an all-rounder. There were other, more experienced players ahead. Consequently, I needed to go out there, to win and to lose.”

He focused so hard on this that he not only managed to clinch the Men’s Open Singles title in 2015 at the Hill Club in Nuwara Eliya, but did so by defeating one-time national champion and Davis Cup player Thangarajah Dineshkanthan. Roughly one year later, Yasitha would get his National Colours by serving in his debut Davis Cup match at Bangkok. Thangarajah had been his doubles partner, and although he didn’t clinch any victories, he learnt. So much so, in fact, that around that time he aced the Men’s Open Singles at the Hill Club, scooping up the SSC Men’s Singles title a year later.

These achievements, copious and admirable as they are, interest me more for what they’ve taught young Yasitha. He continues to pursue tennis today, even at the University of Colombo where he is studying for a degree in Management. These have no doubt left much to reflect on.

To sketch things off in this respect, I ask him as to what he values the most in the game. “I would say concentration,” he contends, “Tennis is a sport which involves both physique and mental makeup. You need to focus and know your opponent. I prefer a singles to a doubles for this reason: not only can I assess the person trying to defeat me, I can also focus on myself. That's important.”

So what does he think about the state of the game in the country today? “I’m both happy and humbled. It’s a mixed bag, actually. On the one hand, we have more private tournaments spanning every age category. On the other hand, while this clearly has boosted interest among younger players, many of them drop out when they reach their O Levels and A Levels. That can be rooted in how bulky our curriculum is. I believe for this reason that we must come up with a solution which converts players to champions without letting go of their need to study and be academically alright.”

Speaking for myself, I’d say that Yasitha has practised what he’s preaching. He not only passed his A Levels with flying colours, he did that while being engaged with two other activities: his school’s Quiz Club and Commerce Society. When I put to him that even the most formidable player can ace his exams, he agrees: “We have reached a point where, even with a bulky syllabus, our ruggerites and cricketers can achieve academically. Yes, you do need to manage your time properly, but then, when you think about it, isn’t that what a sport, any sport, teaches you? Naturally enough, I am in favour of students being equally adept in the court and in the class.”

Yasitha is by no means a traditionalist. He doesn’t like the idea of players leaving the field for their studies or the idea of academics and scholars leaving their studies for the field and the court. A balance is what he aims at. Whether or not we as a nation of aspiring sportsmen and sportswomen can get to that, given our hard to pass, harder to ace curriculum, is another question altogether. I do know this, however: Yasitha’s proved what he’s said. For that reason alone, we should listen.

Written for: The Island YOUth, May 7 2017