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Tennis History and its Holy Grail

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US Open- 2021

by Anura Gunasekera

On Sept. 12, at Flushing Meadows, New York, tennis history was waiting to be re-written but Novak Djokovic, the designated author, failed an eagerly expectant tennis world, history and himself. Instead, the script of the day was seized by an upstart Russian, watched over from the stands by the 83 year old Rod Laver, the man who set that improbable bench mark 52 years ago. Most great champions are also fine, gracious human beings. Without doubt, had Djokovic emulated Laver’s great feat with a win over Medvedev at the Arthur Ashe stadium, Laver himself would have been the happiest of men.

Daniil Medvedev, a lanky, enigmatic Russian with an unorthodox technique and an unexciting game style, delivered an efficient, workmanlike display to steal the day from a surprisingly uninspired Serb. If Medvedev sensed the significance of the occasion and what a Djokovic win would have meant to the Tennis world and its history, his dour demeanour gave no such indication. In a very businesslike manner, Medvedev inflicted a straight sets defeat on the best Tennis craftsman the world has yet seen, in the most significant match of that man’s career. The only sign of nerves appeared at 5-2 in the third set when Medvedev, who had been serving with ruthless efficiency right through, faltered at his first championship point, squandering the opportunity and surrendering the game with two consecutive double faults.

Irrespective of what Djokovic may achieve in future as a tennis player, for him there will not be a more meaningful moment. In an encounter in which the world expected the Serb to deliver his greatest and defining performance, the Russian completely stifled Djokovic, reducing him to the role of fellow traveller in his personal journey to fame, the Russian’s first major singles tennis title. A new Czar has been crowned and the manner of his victory suggests strongly that it will be the first of many more.

The Chinese, traditionally, identify each year by assigning to each calendar period an animal; so we have the year of the Boar, the year of the Dog and so on. The current year, I believe, is the year of the Rat. However, In the Tennis world, 2021 seemed destined to be the year of the Djoker, set to culminate with the men’s singles title at Flushing Meadows, adding to the Australian, French and the Wimbledon titles, accumulated by him in the last eight months. The only blemish in an otherwise triumphant journey was at the Tokyo Olympics, when an inspired Zverev relegated Djokovic to a Bronze with victory in the semi-final and marched on to claim Gold. Fittingly, Djokovic avenged that defeat at the semi-final at Flushing Meadows by grinding out a win against Zverev in a gruelling five setter. In retrospect it would appear that when he entered the arena 48 hours later, for the most significant match of his storied career, the Serb’s tank was not quite full. Perhaps the Tokyo loss was also a portent, that the master mechanic of tennis was beginning to lose his aura of invincibility, as has already happened to Federer and Nadal who, together with Djokovic, have dominated men’s Tennis of the last two decades.

Djokovic’s loss will continue to be analyzed by Tennis pundits for years to come. How did one of the world’s most ruthlessly determined players and unarguably its technically most competent, lose the most important match of his career, that which would have set him, forever, above Nadal and Federer? Notwithstanding the mighty achievements of those two, the 2021 US Open trophy in Djokovic’s hands would have symbolized the Holy Grail of Tennis, the Majors’ Singles Grand Slam in the same calendar year. Djokovic now joins two other greats of the open era, Martina Navratilova and Serena Williams, who also fell at the last hurdle, in 1984 and 2015 respectively. It is most unlikely that Djokovic will have another opportunity. The realist in him will understand that.

In a sporting world in which the audience passes merciless judgement on its stars, Djokovic is a divisive element. He does not attract love and adulation in the measure that Federer and Nadal do. The Serb is controversial and his on court behaviour and histrionics divide opinion, whilst his off-court activities occasionally invite criticism. On account of his conflicts of opinion with the World Pro-Tennis administration, within the tennis fraternity itself he is seen as hurtfully adversarial, something of a loose cannon.

Djokovic is a master at invigorating the crowd during matches and feeding off that energy. He would be visibly angered, as was evident in the match against Zverev, when the crowd roots for his opponent. But that anger became his weapon, his motivator and his asset. However, in the match against Medvedev the normally vibrant Serb was muted, unusually controlled, except in the second set when, in a brief display of the real Djoker, he beat a racquet to death. Perhaps this self-imposed discipline, reinforced by the Russian’s composure, worked against him though, unlike in all the other matches, in the final the raucous and normally partisan crowd was fully with him. They too had come to witness tennis history being made and to share in the moment. But, strangely, Djokovic decided to be different, ignoring the exhortation of the crowd and imposing on himself a restraint unnatural to him.

During the games break at 5-2 in the third set Djokovic wept in to his towel. Perhaps he realized that the match had drifted beyond even his phenomenal capacity for retrieval. At 5-4 in the same set he smiled for the first time in the match, albeit ruefully, perhaps in resignation to the inevitable. Suddenly you realized that there was a sensitive human heart in the machine and made you warm to him. Djokovic endeared himself to the crowd later, when, clearly speaking from the heart, he thanked the crowd for their visible love and support in defeat, features often missing during his numerous victories. The irony of the episode is that Djokovic may be remembered more for this historic defeat, than for all his previous victories. International sport is a cruel domain.

If on that day Djokovic failed the call of history, two unheralded teen aged girls from different countries had re-written it a day earlier, with a fairy tale journey which ended for both in the women’s singles final; Leylah Fernandez, a feisty, excitable, slightly built girl with an infectious grin, out of Canada, the daughter of an Ecuadorean father and a Filipino- Canadian mother, and the gracile, athletic Emma Raducanu with a sunburst of a smile, born in Canada to a Romanian father and a Chinese mother, domiciled in England since the age of two.

Raducanu was perhaps better known than Fernandez, but for the wrong reasons. As a wild card entry at Wimbledon 2021 she fought her way to the fourth round, only to concede, on medical grounds, with a mid-play walkover to Alja Tomljanovic. This capitulation earned her the wrath of a number of well known British armchair critics and even some less than kind comment from John McEnroe. At the US Open, starting off with a ranking of 150, she was compelled to enter the main draw through qualifying rounds. By the time she finally paraded the US Open women’s singles trophy before an ecstatic crowd, she had come through ten consecutive matches in all without losing a set. No man or woman had done it before.

The 19 year old Fernandez, ranked 60 in the world, on her way to the final defeated, amongst others, Kerber (no 16), Sabalenka(no 2) , Svitolina (no 5) and the reigning champion Naomi Osaka, all matches going to three sets. Her path to the final was certainly much tougher than Raducanu’s. It was also fitting that the regal Virginia Wade, the last British woman to win a major title- Wimbledon in 1977- was on hand to witness the victory of her successor 44 years later, ending a long drought for the British sporting public.

Britain, with its constant and desperate search for sporting heroes, has crowned the 18-year old Raducanu with a princess’ tiara. Typical of the confused thinking of the British media and the public is the raging debate on Raducanu’s identity. Is this mixed race Advance Level student a typical British teenager or a brown-skinned symbol of British multiculturalism? It is not dissimilar to the dialogue surrounding Andy Murray, the first British man to win a major title in 78 years. It was said that when Murray won he was celebrated as a Britisher and when he lost, identified as a Scot! Whatever the answer to the questions about Emma Raducanu, she is destined for greatness, provided her future progress, both within and outside the court is managed prudently, ensuring that she does not become an early burnout, smothered by the weight of unrealistic expectations.

These two breakthrough finals have enriched world tennis, signaling the beginning of a new era. Djokovic’s wins were great for men’s tennis the sport will also benefit from his most momentous loss. Medvedev, on an epochal occasion, calmly dismantled one of the greatest tennis players in history whilst defying the highly partisan crowd, to graft for himself a decisive victory. The relatively unknown Raducanu and Fernandez, opponents in the final, despite the straight sets result, playing with great maturity, produced high quality tennis to demonstrate the depth and strength of the women’s game. That the 2021 US Open Men’s Singles final will be celebrated more for Djokovic’s defeat and less for Medvedev’s victory, is irrelevant. These two wins need to be encompassed as a singular moment in tennis history. The batons have been passed to an emerging generation, signaling the early end of the dominant actors, especially in the men’s game. The future of Tennis is in good hands.



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Dominances, hegemonies and diversities

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by Nicola Perera

What spaces exist for students and staff of ethnic and religious minorities, within the university? Do students and staff in these groups have the liberty and security to openly identify themselves, claim their identities, be visible? Do either university structures and policies or the culture and attitudes within the university community, ensure a lack of discrimination, with the same rights, privileges and opportunities, for such persons to live, work, and study in an environment of acceptance, without hostility or marginalisation? I speak of the ethos of majoritarianism, located in a university of the south, which is predominantly the normative of education in the country.

If I were to ask students, staff, or administrators how persons of ethnic and religious minorities are treated in the university, I suspect they would immediately point to the existence of cultural groups that have long been established in university culture. Most universities and faculties will have a Tamil Society, a Hindu Students’ Society, a Muslim Majlis, various Christian groupings, and so on. Each will organise various cultural festivals, such as carols for Christmas, Ifthar, etc. At first glance, there appears to be representation and accommodation of ethnic and religious minorities, and this is institutionalised within the university.

But this accommodation is superficial and tokenistic. Against the existence of these various groups, consider the Student Union itself, which formally represents the entire student body. Who do they actually represent? The Student Union in the Faculty of Arts organises Buddhist festivals, pinkamas, and all-night piriths at the beginning of the year, as well as inviting Buddhist monks for Poyas, like Vesak and Poson. The major event of the year for the Student Union is the Sahithya Ulela, for which the Union goes all out: portraits of the greats of Sinhala literature adorn the pillars of the Faculty, together with quotations from their works. The drama festival is a huge part of the Sahithya Ulela, during which hugely popular Sinhala plays are performed.

This is the way things have always been in the university’s framework of majority default and minority tolerance. There are religious and cultural student societies to represent and take care of non-Buddhist and non-Sinhala students, representing deviations from the norm, while the Student Union itself, regardless of its political/ideological tendency, firmly represents and centres Sinhala-Buddhist religious and cultural concerns instead of the diverse student body as a whole. The majority culture is dominant to the point where it is the ubiquitous default, and all minority positions are tokenised into tolerated representations. It is a system and space that privileges my ethnic background, where my presence goes unquestioned, unremarked upon and unmarked.

On the other hand, what discriminations, aggressions, and microaggressions do students and staff of ethnic and religious minorities face in and outside class? What could they tell us, if we could only assure them of the security to openly talk about such things without fear of retaliation? What is our role as academic staff, regardless of discipline, to initiate difficult conversations about inclusion, acceptance, to challenge the biases, prejudices, absences? What microaggressions, hostilities, subtle or overt othering do we as staff and administrators perpetrate? What is the culture that we create in university?

What of the class of Muslim students who were told that they can keep their cultural identity but should wear colourful abayas and hijabs, instead of the dark colours they preferred? What of the Muslim staff member who was requested to come and speak to these students, to present herself as a role model who chose to wear colourful shalwars while covering her head? Is it in any way relevant that these requests were made by a staff member clad in Kandyan sari? Of course, it is: the representation of Sinhala Buddhist culture as the university’s default makes its aesthetics and preferences the standard, which apparently Sinhala individual staff members feel empowered to enforce.

What of the Muslim women students who were stopped at the entrance of the university after the Easter bombings? The security guards told them to wear their hijabs in such a way as to show their ears. Is the university capable of recognising this harassment as harassment? Was this an officially-sanctioned policy that required the security guards to act this way? Or were they merely empowered to perform this harassment in that moment by the long-established practice of treating Sinhala culture, dress, and presentation as normal and default, with all marked minority cultures as suspicious deviations? Would the existence of the Muslim Majlis be sufficient to let these students agree with the common perspective that the university – by policy or practice – does not discriminate on the basis of religious/ethnic grounds? Could these students have gotten away with showing impatience, even a touch of hauteur (as I did when I produced my ID card for inspection) at the guards’ power to remark on their ethnicity, police their attire – in myriad small ways to let them know that their presence in the university space was under surveillance, at the majority’s sufferance?

It is not enough for the university to complacently point at tokenistic student groups as evidence of non-discrimination. Even the simple representation of diversity, at which the university is already failing, would still not be enough: including Tamil-language plays at the Sahithya Ulela and making sure to include the portraits of Tamil and Muslim writers as well is necessary, but far from sufficient. What we need is active anti-discrimination, in both word and deed, to identify these situations and contexts in which staff and students of religious and ethnic minorities in our universities are harassed, othered, and discriminated against every day, and to figure out ways to end those practices and prevent them from recurring, through policy, through education, and through our own efforts as the people who uphold and perpetuate university culture.

Nicola Perera is attached to the Department of English Language Teaching, University of Colombo.

Kuppi is a politics and pedagogy happening on the margins of the lecture hall that parodies, subverts, and simultaneously reaffirms social hierarchies.

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Prevent growth of extremism through stronger institutions

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Priyantha Kumara, who was lynched in Pakistan

By Jehan Perera

The killing of a Sri Lankan, in Pakistan, by a frenzied mob, who accused him of committing an act of blasphemy, serves as a grim reminder of the ever-present danger of pent-up emotion exploding in society. Over the eons, religion has served to humanize the more primitive nature, lurking within human beings.  “Be kind to the stranger in your midst, because you were once strangers in the land of Egypt,” is the biblical injunction too often ignored by the very people who profess to follow its teachings. It is not only in Pakistan that such inhuman acts have occurred, especially when there has been a failure of national leadership to instill a higher ethos of morality in the people, too often for the sake of electoral gain.

Prime Minister Imran Khan of Pakistan has been accused of defending Pakistan’s blasphemy law and promoting Islamic fundamentalism to come to power and now to shore up support for his government that is failing to solve the problems of the people.  A clause of the constitution mandates the death penalty for any “imputation, insinuation or innuendo” against the Holy Prophet.  Presently Pakistan faces economic sanctions by the EU, as does Sri Lanka, due to its adherence to this law and other human rights issues.   The EU has raised issues related to the protection of journalists, religious extremism, misuse of blasphemy laws, and forced conversion in some parts of the country. A compromised political environment in which there is impunity leads people to take the law into their own hands according to their notions of what is right and wrong.

Mobilising the emotions of people, whether by religion or ethnic nationalism, to gain and retain power, is like sowing the wind and reaping the whirlwind.  President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and other members of the Sri Lankan government have expressed their strong condemnation of the heinous crime against its citizens and demanded justice.  Prime Minister Khan has pledged justice and referred to the “day of shame” for Pakistan.  More than a hundred alleged participants in the crime have been arrested. There have also been images of Pakistani civil society groups saying sorry for what has happened.  Likewise, Sri Lankan civil society will also recall the support that Pakistan gave to Sri Lanka during the years of war and, diplomatically, on the issues of human rights violations raised by sections of the international community.

DANGEROUS MIX

It is also necessary for Sri Lankans to be mindful about what has happened within Sri Lanka itself during the JVP insurrection, the 1983 riots, and, more recently, in Aluthgama, Digana and Kurunegala.  In all of these instances, there was a measure of state complicity, or inaction, which is worse than the savage deeds of a mob as the state represents the civilization of the country.  This state failure has been on account of the over-politicisation of the state machinery to the point where senior officers of the state, most of whom have joined the state for idealistic reasons, cannot and do not perform their duties due to political interference.  In a manner similar to Prime Minister Khan, President Rajapaksa, and the current government, won elections by catering to the nationalism and fears of the ethnic majority, with some of its allies spewing hatred towards the ethnic and religious minorities.

There are disturbing signs that the situation of state failure is growing more serious in Sri Lanka.  The release of former Governor Azath Salley after he had been in remand jail for eight months on charges that the court said were not sustainable. All charges against him by the Attorney General were dismissed as they lacked merit.  The injustice done to him and his family, the loss of eight months of his life and his reputation, require reparations which may be forthcoming as he is a person of stature.  There will be countless others who are less able to fight their cases, like the former Governor did.  In addition, there have been several killings in police custody of prisoners who are alleged to have tried to escape when taken to find their store of weapons or in cross fire or by suicide.  Making matters worse is that in some of these cases the families and lawyers of the imprisoned persons have given advance warning that those held in custody are scheduled to be killed, but nothing is done and the deaths take place.

The same inability or unwillingness to ensure accountability can be seen at multiple levels, be it in relation to the manner in which the three-decade long war ended, or the Easter Sunday bombings, or the Central Bank bond scandal, or the sugar tax scandal, the Yugadanavi Power Plant issue and, most recently, the explosion of large numbers of cooking gas cylinders which have led to deaths and burning down of people’s homes.  In none of these cases has investigations led to the masterminds being found and meted out justice. With time, the cases might be forgotten and the wrongdoers get away with their crimes. Perhaps it is in apprehension of the potential crisis situation in the country that the Supreme Court has written a strong judgement in a case that is representative of the people’s sense of compassion and care for all living beings as directed by the sacred religious texts.   This was with regard to whether elephants captured from the wild and taken to homes and temples as objects of social prestige should be returned to their supposed owners or released to the wild or sent to protected sanctuaries.

GOOD GOVERNANCE

In a decision that can have far reaching ramifications for the rule of law, and for the system of checks and balances, and wisely in a case that is less politically controversial, the Court cited a famous judgement by Lord Denning in the English Courts where he said, “It is settled in our constitutional law that in matters that concern the public at large the Attorney General is the guardian of the public interest.  Although he is a member of the government of the day, it is his duty to represent the public interest with complete objectivity and detachment.  He must act independently of any external pressure for whatever quarter it may come.”  The Court said that “these observations aptly apply to the role of the Attorney General of Sri Lanka.”  Notably the respondents in this case were the Prime Minister and Minister of Wildlife.

If positions, such as the Attorney General, are to be filled with persons who will make decisions in line with the Court judgement above, it is necessary that they should be persons with integrity and competence.  They also need the space to be able to do their work without political interference.  It was to achieve this objective that two different governments, headed by two different political leaders from two different political parties took steps to ensure the passage of the 17th and 19th amendments in 2001 and 2015 respectively.  These two amendments had the common feature of reducing the President’s powers and seeking to increase the independence of state institutions from political interference.  A police force that is independent of political influencers, who act behind the scenes, is more likely to act with integrity in dealing with the impunity that is growing in the country.

The government’s pledge of a new draft constitution, before the end of the year, provides an opportunity to reform the system of governance and put an end to the multifarious violations and weaknesses in it that breeds impunity and resentment which is the fuel for extremism of all sorts. The political space should be kept secular, unlike in the case of Pakistan with its religious law, and kept free from religious or ethnic nationalist biases. The reintroduction of the scheme of appointment of higher officials of state, through a multi-partisan constitutional council consisting of members of government, Opposition and civil society, would lead to better appointments than the President alone making the appointments.  The members of the constitutional council would together select the most appropriate persons to high offices of state and to insulate them from politically-motivated interference.  This is particularly important in the case of the higher judiciary, the last bastion of freedom in a democracy that is going wrong.  The present deterioration in the integrity and quality of decision-making at multiple levels and in multiple institutions highlights the need for a strong system of government, based on checks and balances–real good governance.

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Action…in the coming weeks

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At the Irish Pub tomorrow night

The lead up to Christmas, and the New Year, certainly doesn’t look ‘blue,’ in any way.

Initially, I was thinking of Elvis Presley’s ‘Blue Christmas’ – what with the pandemic, and the new variant, creating chaos…everywhere.

But…yes, the showbiz scene here seems to have changed, for the better.

On December 8th (that’s tomorrow), ‘The Legends of Ceylon’ is the title of a musical evening, that will take place, from 7.00 pm onwards, at the Irish Pub, in Colombo, featuring Geoffrey Fernando, Mignonne, Noeline, Sohan, Dalrene, and Manilal, backed by the group Mirage.

Sohan & The X-Periments, a name associated with sing-along events, will be involved in two sing-alongs this month – on December 12th at The Grand Kandyan Hotel, and on December 17th at the BMICH Banquet Hall.

The Christmas Sing-Along, in Kandy, commencing at 7.00 pm, will have, in the vocal spotlight, Corrine, Clifford Richard, Sohan, and Trishelle, along with The X-Periments.

The 17th event, at the BMICH, from 7.30 pm onwards, will also feature Corrine, Clifford Richard, Sohan, and Trishelle, with guest stars Falan Andrea and Radika.

Sohan indicated to us that the festive scene seems to be brightening up, a bit, and that he and his band do have work coming their way,

“We are going to be pretty busy for the next few weeks.”

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