Tennis in Sri Lanka: Halcyon Days, 1915–1990

Lam Seneviratne, compiler of a booklet published by the Sri Lanka Tennis Association, 45 Sir Marcus Fernando Mawatha, Colombo (Rajagiriya, New Lanka Printers, June 1990 … with blocks by Two P. Graphic Reproduction Services, Dehiwela).

The compiling of this book to mark the 75th Anniversary of the Sri Lanka Tennis Association quite unexpectedly devolved on me. I realized very quickly that it would be a big task to trace the events of 75 years. There were no similar publication to commemorate the silver or golden jubilees, which meant that a start had to be made from the very beginning. I had to interview the oldest officials, administrators, players and the relatives of those who have passed away, to obtain information, documents, souvenirs, paper clippings and photographs in order to record the history of these years. I say thank you to Doris Somanader, Coo Coo Jilla, Ranjani Jayasuriya, C. I. Gunasekera, Noel de Costa, Barbara Sansoni, T. Thiruchittampalam, Cedric De Silva, E. Pararajasingham. Channa Gunasekera and J.P.M. Grenier for all their help and assistance.

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In particular I am indebted to Walter Dias who spent many hours delving into the records at the National Archives and some Libraries to obtain the details of our earlier office-bearers. He also obtained the results of our first tournaments, which had been unknown to us. It is indeed fortuitous that the publication of this book was undertaken on this occasion, as some of the photographs, records and information now preserved for posterity could have been lost forever by the time of our next jubilee.

The mood, flavour and essence of the game in our country down the ages is vividly portrayed in the several articles, particularly those about the individual clubs. As I gathered the events of our history I realized the value and importance of my task, which in the end has been enormously satisfying and rewarding. I am certain that as you read through these pages, you will be able to share these same sentiments.

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COACHES: During the period 1983-88 the national coach who was our only qualified Coach conducted workshops and clinics for the other SLTA Coaches. In January 1988 Peter Smith who runs his own Coaching school in England was on a contract with the Colombo Hilton Hotel, and conducted a short training course for our coaches. In March 1988 our Association obtained from the International Tennis Federation for the first time, the services of a Trainer Mr. Roland Hansson to conduct a one-week workshop for our Coaches. Later in the year we obtained the services of Lincoln Venancio and David Baukol, two coaches from Peter Burwash International, for a one-week spell. They not only coached groups of players but also instructed our Coaches and we realized quite emphatically the importance of updating our coaching methods. In 1989 some of our coaches attended seminars in Thailand and West Germany to further upgrade themselves.

However it is apparent that our Coaches need to have formal training and towards this goal our President Mr. D.L. Seneviratne on a visit to Australia initiated discussions. We are delighted at the prospect that Rupert Ferdinands our former National Champion and Davis Cup player who is now Chief Examiner of Coaches in Victoria, will be in Sri Lanka in July 1990 through the Tennis Coaches Association of Victoria to set up the first Tennis coaches School in our Country. Using the same syllabus as in Australia, he will conduct Level I and Level II training coursed which will include theory, practicals and examinations.

PRESIDENT’S FOREWARD: The game of Tennis which was introduced to Sri Lanka by the British has rich traditions in our country. We can even claim a Wimbledon Champion since P. F. Hadow who won the Men’s Singles title in 1878 was a Coffee Planter from Ceylon. The National Tennis Championship of our country were first held in 1884 and predictably the Britishers made up of Planters, Government and Mercantile officers and their wives triumphed in the early years.

The Sri Lanka Tennis Association, which celebrates its 75th year in 1990, is the second oldest National Tennis Association in Asia next to Hong Kong and is even older than the French Tennis Federation. Right up to 1946 the Presidents of the Association were the Governors of Ceylon at the time. It is worthy of mention that Mr. Lionel Fonseka served Secretary of the Association for 20 years and then as President for 3 years up to 1958, as Mr. V. A. Sugathadasa a Minister of Parliament was the President of the Association for a period of 10 Years and was instrumental in our Association securing its present Head Quarters.

Formerly, the game flourished in our Provinces. The premier clubs were the Colombo Garden Club for Europeans and the Colombo Lawn Club for Sri Lankans: both also no longer exist. Today there are about 300 tennis courts and some 3000 tennis players in Sri Lanka. At present there are 70 clubs with tennis playing facilities and these clubs make up the National Association.

Tennis is now a truly universal Sport and 156 countries are affiliated to the world controlling body. THE INTERNATIONAL TENNIS FEDERATION of which Sri Lanka is a Member with voting rights. We are also a member of the regional body, The Asian Tennis Federation and it is appropriate that we are represented on the Executive Board of this body in this our 75th year.

This important Anniversary of our Association has been marked by several noteworthy events. Firstly, a Tennis Trust was founded to finance all the promotion and development activities of the Association. Then the ITF allocated the prestigious Asian Junior Championships to us which has been concluded very successfully. The presence of John Treleven, Juniors Programmes Adminstrator of the ITF and Mr. Eiichi Kawatei President of the ATF at these championships was a great source of encouragement to us. We are also issuing 4 Postage stamps in se-tenant pairs to commemorate our 75th year. Finally, a National Tennis Centre with 3 Decoturf Hardcourts and a Clay court has also been planned for construction this year.

Our success at international Tennis in recent years has brought about a boom in the game which is now perhaps the fastest growing sport in Sri Lanka. We are fortunate that Coats, the Thread Makers and Eveready Battery Co. Lanka Ltd. have supported us financially for several years as our sponsors. Similarly, the big Hotels have also helped us enormously and Tennis in our country seems poised to reach greater heights in the future.

D.L. SENEVIRATNE, President, Sri Lanka Tennis Association


12 men and 10 women are listed as our most outstanding players down the ages purely on their achievements at the National championships. Their individual performances are given in the table and the order of their names does not reflect any priority. Comparisons are subjective in the Nationals as factors such as the war years interrupting players’ careers or their not participating due to illness or being abroad, the participation of top foreign players in certain years and the number of participants in the events, have all influenced the records of the players.














O.M.L.Pinto  7 7 9 23 2 10
Arjun Fernando  6 7 13
R. Ferdinands  4 4 5 13 2  4
F.J. Koo De Saram  3 6 1 10 1  5
H.C.Sansoni  2 3 2  7  3
B.L.Pinto  1 8 5 14 16 Fonblanque 10 10  7
D.E.Kelly  6 6 1 13  5
G.O.Nicholas  3 5  8 10
C.I.Gunasekera 3 6  9  7
Lasantha Fernando  1 3 4  8 10
P.S.Kumara  2 4  6  6


Doreen Sansoni 7 4 8 19 2  6
Ranjani Jayasuriya 4 8 3 15 3  4
Sheila Roberts 5 3  8 12
Mrs G.D.H.Alston 7 5 1 13  8
Manisha Perera 4 3 2  9  2
Lihini Weerasuriya 4 2 1  7 1  3
Coo Coo Fonseka 1 5 4 10 1  5?
Mrs.C.R.Warren 4 2 1  7  3
Mrs.C.Gilliat 2 5 3 10  5
Rukmani Kodagoda 7 2  9


…scheme for the merging of Courts 3 and 4 into a Centre Court for the last two days of the Championships. Mr. Fernando’s scheme was an excellent one and Mr Tennekoon completed the arrangements necessary to put it into practice. In those days there were spectators indeed to fill both stands and terraces.

In 1933 our Championships which had hitherto been confined to residents of Ceylon, were thrown open to All Comers. Andrews and Stedman, New Zealanders, were the first visitors to play under the new conditions. Andrews won the Singles, and the Doubles with Stedman. Nicholas was the runner-up. For some unaccountable reason Andrews and Stedman were seeded into the same half? ! From 1935 we had the Indians participating and this lent the Tennis added interest. From 1935 to 1940 the Men’s Champion was an Indian, Krishnaswamy. Savur and Gupta being the winners except in the years 1938 and 1939 when I won the title.

The best lady players in the years 1930 to 1940 were Gertrude Steiger, Clodagh Wright, Nedra Obeyesekera, Doreen Sansoni and Amy Rock, who was a finalist in 1934 and 1935. From 1935 Doreen proved she was in a class of her own by remaining unbeaten from 1935 to 1940. She had every shot in the game and served, drove, chopped and smashed with force and accuracy. Her volleying was so good that I have seen her hold her own against men both here and in India when positioned near the net. She was not physically strong but she had grit. She holds with Mrs. Alston the distinction of having been Singles’ Champion on 7 occasions. She won the title again in 1946 when the Championships were renewed. There was no competition from 1942 to 1945 owing to the War. I am certain she would have put her name yet again on the Championship roll but for this hiatus at a time she was playing her best Tennis and when only Sheila Roberts could have challenged her superiority. Sheila was an attractive hard-hitting player who was always worth watching as she gave one the impression that she played the game for the sheer joy of it. She won the Ladies’ Singles in 1941,1947,1949, 1950 and 1951.


Sheila serving Sheila Roberts serving –Family Archives

F.J. de Saram was another who was deprived of many a title due to the War. He won the singles first in 1941 and again in 1947 and 1950. With his brother, Derrick, the Oxford Blue, he won the Men’s Doubles 5 times and in 1950 playing with Noel de Costa who is an extremely good Doubles’ Player, he won it again. Derrick whilst still a schoolboy won the Doubles with his talented and evergreen father, Fred, in 1930. A truly noteworthy performance.

“Koo,” and before him Lyn Loos, had the hallmark of real champions. They were tall and lithe and had speed and power combined with perfect stroke production. It is a pity “Koo” did not go to Europe to perfect his Tennis when the war ended. Loos unfortunately died young. He was perfectly groomed, good looking and had an outstanding personality on and off the court. In the short time he played, he won every title. He alas, died in his twenties just when he had fame, fortune, a successful legal career and more Championship honours in his grasp.

I now come to the years 1951 to the present day. The Indian players won the title 14 times. Ghaus Mohamed, Iftikhar Ahmed, Krishnan and Misra were the most impressive. Percy Ernst won the singles in 1952 and won the Men’s Doubles twice. He still plays first class Tennis and can beat many a ranked player. Here is a man who keeps himself fit and in good fettle all the time. Younger players, please note and emulate!


Filed under life stories, performance, sri lankan society, unusual people

13 responses to “Tennis in Sri Lanka: Halcyon Days, 1915–1990

  1. Dr. B. K. Chandrasekhar

    I am in Bangalore, India and how can I buy the book? I can pay through my credit card including for postage.
    Dr. B K Chandrasekhar

  2. B K Chandrasekhar

    I am still waiting to hear regarding the book,

    Dr. B K Chandrasekhar

  3. Pingback: Burgher Tennis Club in Galle, circa 1928 | Thuppahi's Blog

  4. Hugh

    Sad to see the obituary notice of Coo Coo Fonseka in yesteraday22 Sep papers.

  5. Hugh

    I have some old photos of OML Pinto receiving various awards after tournaments. In every photo he has a cigarette in his hand, a stylish thing in those days. Considered foolish rather than stylish now.

  6. Martin Smith

    Does anyone know what the O. in O. Manuel Lisboa Pinto stands for? Thanks.

    • D.Lam Seneviratne

      Yes. The first initial of O.M.L Pinto stands for Oscar I believe his surname was Lisboa-Pinto.

  7. Rex Olegasegarem

    I believe Rukmani Kodagoda won the Singles title as well. She entered the University of Ceylon (Peradeniya Campus ) in 1957 and was then the national champion. I had the privilege to captain the Peradeniya University Tennis team in 1957/58 and was fortunate to have Rukmani in our team as she won all the Ladies’ events in several competitions.
    Rex Olegasegarem

  8. Joe Simpson

    Noticed Hildon Sansoni there, Michael – the artist Barbara’s first husband. Knew him from my 1973-4 VSO time in SL. He was a good friend from their youth of his contemporary Nesta Brohier née Ephraums of the New Oriental Hotel (known to cognoscenti as simply “the NOH”) who was also distantly related to Barbara on the Daniels family side. Younger Dominic was away abroad at high school in those days, but I met him & wife Naz at Barefoot Colombo the last time that my spouse Penny & I visited Sri Lanka, namely in 2002. And now the immensely talented Barbara too has left us. Tempus fugit.

    Hildon played competitive doubles at the Wimbledon tournament once in around 1924, I remember him telling me. I have a particular memory of a moonlit night in December 1973 at Unawatuna, where Nesta kept a simple tiny cabin (more like a changing room) near the temple end of the beach. Hildon was on top conversational form, impressed that I and my VSO colleague Dai Churcher (an engineering grad based in Amparai at Hardy TTI) were about to head off on a three-week circuit of the island on a single Honda 90cc moped that Dai had been issued through the local branch of the British Council as a “remote station” VSO. My God, exclaimed Hildon, watch out for rogue elephants! (We did meet one or two of those in the Eastern Province, but out-ran them on the trusty moped.) As we later parted from a by-then well-lubricated Hildon, back at the NOH where he was staying the night, I can still see him standing at the top of the hotel steps on Church Street in Galle Fort, exclaiming with great feeling, “Gentlemen, I salute you as the last vestige of Empire!”

    Not quite how we saw ourselves, but for someone of Hildon’s vintage and background as a one-time British colonial Governor’s ADC, it was meant (and taken) as a sincere compliment. I never saw him again, but decades later I had the pleasure of sending his son Dominic in Colombo a scanned copy of a photograph of his dad in jocular mood taken that moonlit night at Unawatuna, long before the place became a tourist mecca. Years later I came across a brief mention of Hildon (slightly mis-spelled as ‘Hilden’) as the author’s Colombo lunchtime host along with wife Barbara in Michael Ondaatje’s 1982 fictionalized family history, ‘Running In The Family”. It’s to be found in a short typically-surreal chapter headed “Lunch Conversation”. In the novel Hildon tells the story of how he and others tried unsuccessfully to revive a Burgher friend drowned while swimming in the ocean at Negombo. Fact or fiction, I can’t say.

    • Lam Seneviratne

      Miss Rukmani Kodagoda was a fine Tennis player and excelled at the Nationals in Doubles. She won the Women’s doubles 7 times, partnering either Miss Ranjani Jayasuriya or Mrs.Wendy Molligoda and the Mixed doubles on two occasions, first with Indian G.C.K Bhupathy and then with B.L.Pinto. She was runner-up once with C.I Gunasekera as partner. Though she did not win at Singles she was runner-up once to Miss Lakshmi Mahadevan of India. In the Provincial events at N’Eliya, Bandarawela etc. Rukmani won the Triple Crown many times.
      I have included her in my ‘Hall of Fame’ of the 10 best players as at 1990, as shown in the Table in my book.

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