Previewing Sri Lanka Tennis Nationals – Part 01 : THE FASCINATING HISTORY OF CLTA


Tracing History of Tennis Nationals

by Revata S. Silva

In barely one month’s time from here will begin one of the oldest and the most prestigious sporting events in the island. The Sri Lanka Tennis Nationals, in both Junior and Senior categories, will be held at the Sri Lanka Tennis Association (SLTA) from 13th to 26th of the coming August to revive the memories of more than a century of a rich sporting history, through a period of over 60 years of British occupation of Sri Lanka, then Ceylon, and through times of the ‘cold tennis’ that was played by the richest elitist in the country when the hill country capital Nuwara Eliya staged the event for almost 90 years from its inception.

This fascinating story will be revisited, the heroes of yesteryear will be remembered and the nostalgia is to be rekindled as we will trace the history of Sri Lanka Tennis Nationals in eight (8) episodes, appearing in ‘The Island’ every Saturday and Monday of the week.

The Sri Lanka Tennis Nationals, to be held next August, will be its 96th version. This long-running tournament has been inaugurated 127 years ago, in 1884; long before there was any National Association to run the sport in the island.

The Ceylon Lawn Tennis Association (CLTA) was formed in 1915 with (Sir) Robert Chalmers, the Governor of Ceylon, as its first President. Until the year 1946, there was a practice at the CLTA to have the Governor, the first citizen and the administrative head of this British colony, as its President.

There had been eight (8) Governors who became Presidents of the CLTA including Chalmers, during the period of 1915 to 1946. They were (Sir) Robert Chalmers (from 1915-16), (Sir) John Anderson (1916-19), (Sir) William Henry Manning (1919-27), (Sir) Herbert J. Stanley (1927-31), (Sir) Graeme Thomson (1931-33), (Sir) Reginald Edward Stubbs (1933-37), (Sir) Andrew Caldecott (1937-42) and (Sir) Henry Monck-Mason Moore (1945-46). It should be noted that from 1942 to ’45, there was no committee elected to the CLTA due to the spread of World War II.

Dr. C. H. and Lionel Fonseka

For the record, it was Dr. C. H. Gunasekara who was the first ever native Ceylonese to become CLTA President, who held the post for three years since 1946. Dr. Churchill Hector (CH) played cricket for Cambridge University, where he studied medicine, and he was the first Ceylonese to play for English counties, playing for Middlesex from 1919-21 before captaining All-Ceylon for nine matches. Dr. Gunasekara, father of former All-Ceylon cricketer Channa and uncle of famous C. I. Gunasekera, became runner-up thrice in Singles and champion five times in Doubles in Ceylon Tennis Nationals, during 1924-32.

But the native Lionel Fonseka, a popular personality in local tennis administration through a large part of the mid 20th century, had been elected CLTA Secretary as far back as in 1935, under President (Sir) Edward Stubbs. Fonseka went on to hold that post consecutively for 20 years till 1955, the year he became CLTA President and held the post for three years from then.

At ‘Challet’ in Nuwara Eliya

As the Governors were busy with the state affairs, the administrative work of the CLTA fell on its Hony. Secretary. The CLTA Secretary of 1920, R. G. Coombe, who later became one of its Vice Presidents, has been called the Father of Ceylon Tennis mainly due to the service he rendered to develop CLTA and Ceylonese tennis in general. Describing the role played by Coombe in Ceylonese tennis, Hildon C. Sansoni, the National men’s champion of 1938 and ’39, once wrote: "…President of the C. L. T. A., Mr. R. G. Coombe, who planted for years in Poonagalla near Bandarawela. He was a "Big" man in every sense of the word; he ran the "Board" in a most autocratic manner and had no hesitation in dealing firmly with any late comer. The normal penalty was to be condemned to play "in the paddy field" – Courts Nos. 5 or 6. Mr. Coombe used no megaphone – his calls for players could be heard in the Golf club." (‘My Recollections of Tennis in Ceylon’ by H. C. Sansoni, Pg.46, ‘75 Years of Sri Lanka Tennis Association’, compiled by D. Lam Seneviratne, 1990)

The CLTA was headquartered at a place called ‘Challet’ in N’Eliya at the time of its establishment and was conducting the Nationals at clay courts where we now find Hill Club. CLTC held tournaments in Colombo too, especially at the Colombo Lawn Club which was situated at Victoria Park, on a Colombo Municipal Council property.

As the Municipality later wanted to expand the Park and the club members had been asked to seek membership of the adjoining Garden Club which had been, though, an exclusive place for the then European community in the metropolis. However in 1954, after the intervention of the Colombo Mayor, the lease of the Garden Club had been terminated and its tennis courts had been made available to the CLTA. That time, its President had been T. E. de Silva.

In 1971, under President M. T. Thiruchittampalam, the CLTA saw a major constitutional change where it needed to be composed of individual members, with voting rights, and representatives of affiliated clubs, who did not have any voting rights.

In next part on Monday, July 18 –

Tennis Nationals begin at Nuwara Eliya Hill Club

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