By Dr Upul Wijayawardhana
The wonder of youth was best on display in the evening of 11 Sept., when two hugely talented teenagers, both unseeded, gave an amazing display of tennis in vying for the US Open title. Of course, I wanted Emma Raducanu, who represented GB, to win but had lingering doubts as her opponent, Leylah Fernandez was more experienced and had defeated players ranked 3, 16, 5 and 2, to reach the final. This was only the second Grand Slam Emma has played in, having to withdraw during the fourth-round match in Wimbledon due to breathing difficulties which made some wonder whether she had the mental grit to stand the rigours of tough competitions. She proved them wrong in a spectacular manner, reaching the final in an unprecedented way. She had to win three rounds to get into the tournament as a qualifier, and won the next six rounds, reaching the finals without dropping a set in any of the matches. By then, she had missed the return flight to the UK which she had booked as she never expected to be in the competition so long!
Sports are so commercialised that many Brits without Amazon Prime subscription were going to miss seeing the first British woman to play in a Grand Slam final after 44 years. Fortunately, in one of its rare good deeds, Channel 4 paid for screening rights and we could join over 9 million Brits on the edge of their seats for two hours. It was well worth it, as Emma won the final again in straight sets, creating yet another record by being the first qualifier ever to win a Grand Slam! In another rare gesture, Amazon had agreed to donate the fee for advancement of tennis for girls.
Emma Raducanu’s spectacular win was witnessed by Virginia Wade, the first winner of the US Women’s title in the open era in 1968, Arthur Ashe winning the Men’s. She was also the last British woman before Emma to win a Grand Slam; Wimbledon in 1977. Fortunately, Sir Andy Murray was able to break the even longer drought in Male Tennis by winning the US Open in 2012, 76 years after Fred Perry’s 1936 Wimbledon win.
It was very sad that Emma’s parents could not be there in person at the proudest moment of their lives due to quarantine regulations. Whilst shedding a tear of joy for Emma Raducanu’s ‘impossible’ victory, I was saddened to think of the wasted youth in Sri Lanka. How things changed for the worse in my lifetime continues to puzzle me.
We belong to a fortunate generation. We had excellent free education which we made full use of. We had good teachers, not ‘private tuition masters’! We could plan our future as we knew we could get a place for higher education as long as we got the required grades. Our progress in universities was not hampered by student’s unions controlled by unscrupulous politicians with warped thinking. I started my practice of medicine a few months after I turned 23 and was a fully qualified specialist by the time I turned 30. I was not one for sports but did writing and broadcasting. Therefore, I can look back at my youth with a sense of satisfaction.
Unfortunately, we lacked a political class with a vision. Perhaps, this happened because most of the politicians except those at the time of independence took to politics by exclusion than by choice. Lucky politicians got ministries, not because of competence or education, but on the basis of caste, creed, religion, etc. There were no shadow ministers in the Opposition and with the change of government another set of misfits became ministers. For some time, the status quo was maintained by senior administrators who were trained for the job after being selected following a highly competitive examination.
Anti-elite campaigners succeeded. Permanent Secretaries became secretaries and Ministers became permanent as long as they did not upset their bosses! No proper planning was done and the slippery slope started. Then came the terrorists; the JVP destroyed a generation of Sinhala youth and the LTTE destroyed a generation of Tamil youth. Now, there is a greater danger affecting some youth the world over––Islamic extremism.
When I started training postgraduate trainees from Sri Lanka in Grantham Hospital, the first thing I noted was their age and started diplomatically finding out why it had taken them so long to get into PG training. I was shocked at the unwarranted delays they faced which were not due to any fault of theirs. All of them were brilliant but the system had failed them. We need to reinstall discipline so that we have schools and universities functioning properly, ensuring valuable years in life are not wasted.
Perhaps, we need to get out of our insular attitudes. There may be some lessons to learn from studying the background of these two talented players. Leyla Fernandez, born in September 2002 in Quebec, Canada has an Ecuadorian father and a Filipino mother. Emma Raducanu was born in November 2002 in Toronto, Canada but moved to the UK when she was two years, with her Romanian father and Chinese mother. Three months before winning the US Open, she got an A star in Mathematics and A in Economics, in the A level examination whilst attending a state school.
These two teenagers, 23 years old Naomi Osaka, whose father is Haitian and mother is Japanese and 25-years-old Ashleigh Barty, whose father is of indigenous Australian descent and mother is of English descent, joined to form a ‘fab-four in women’s tennis, dawning a new era in tennis as the era dominated by the fab-four; Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic of the men’s game is drawing to an end. Considering their dexterity, women’s tennis may become more popular than men’s. Who knows!
It is well known that mixing of genes has an enhancing effect. It is also well established that inbreeding leads to many genetic defects. Perhaps, this is another reason why we should get rid of artificial divisions like caste. Although one would have expected that we would have a more enlightened attitude, the matrimonial columns of any newspaper give enough evidence that archaic institutions are still strong.
It is high time we stopped protecting archaic systems and moved forward. This will give an opportunity for the talents of our youth to be displayed and it is our duty to harness the wonder of youth for the advancement of the country.