The Resilient Upali Rajakaruna; War Hero turned Tennis Champion


    “It was gloomy evening in May 1997 at the Jayasikuru camp. Private Upali who just passed out of the Military College representing the Sinha regiment with flying colours got his first assignment to Jayasikuru.

    Upali recalls the memories from his youth in Sri Lanka’s war trodden era; ammunition being fired, shells exploding in the vicinity of the camp, bloodshed and cries of agony. “

    That is all what Upali recollects from his life as a war hero. The next thing he remembers is waking up in hospital with his left leg amputated.

    For many who have sacrificed their life for the betterment of the country, it is the end of the road for them in their contemporary lives but it is not always the case. For Upali Rajakaruna it was just the beginning of a new life; a new chapter in life that changed his life and won him the hearts of a nation.

    It was the 16th of June 2002, exactly 13 years ago as Upali recollects that changed his life. It was that day when this individual named Mark Bullock first introduced the sport of Tennis to him and a few of his colleagues. Hailing from the North Central region of Kekirawa the Tennis was an alien subject for him. Upali schooled at the Kekirawe Ganthiriyagama Mahinda Maha Vidyalaya and he relates his life revolved around playing sports such as Elle and Volley ball.

    Being introduced to a sport which he had hardly seen or heard of was a new experience relates Upali. But the expertise shown by Mark Bullock made him and his comrades take up the sport. From  naïve beginnings, Upali Rajarakaruna has risen in the ranks of Wheelchair Tennis dominating the international arena bringing glory to Sri Lanka over the past 13 years.

    Starting off in the year 2002, he recalls his first touring experience. After a series of training and gameplay, their first real tour was to Thailand to participate in the ITF Wheelchair series in the D division as Sri Lanka had just started with the sport.

    “To give us a better experience we were taken on a tour to Thailand. We were in the D Division back then. I was fortunate enough to win my very first tournament itself. Me and my partner Gamini got gold in the doubles and I got a silver in the singles.”

    From the debut tour to Thailand, Upali mentions that Sri Lanka has been in the top division in the for the last 10 years amongst the top 20 countries.

    “We have been participating in the World Series from 2004 and we have been able to come to the top ranks many times. In the series in South Korea we got a third place and in the rest we have been fourth or fifth.”

    “We have had the privilege of getting another ‘top three’ finish this year as well in Poland but sadly my partner Gamini sustained an injury on his knee so we had to be happy with the 8th spot.”

    Sri Lanka has taken giant steps in Wheelchair Tennis according to Upali. He states from the time he started playing, Sri Lanka has climbed the ladder with small steps but stay in the competitive zone among the other heavyweights.

    Yet, Upali says the limited tours has made them still stagnate behind the top nations. “We have come up in the sport in a huge way. We are currently within the top 20 nations in Wheelchair tennis. The only reason we cannot go higher is because we do not tour regularly. We tour only a selected set of tournaments making it difficult for us to gain points. If we toured more during a year, we will be able to get more points which will increase our overall rank. Because we only tour a set of series, we have not been able to reach the top but still we are in line with the top playing nations.”

    The golden year in Wheelchair  Tennis according to Upali’s has been 2012. The Sri Lankan contingent had their all time best rankings of 3rd place in the World series that year, while he achieved a career best of 44 in the world rankings.

    Being the first Sri Lankan to be in the top 50 world rankings was a huge feat for Upali in his journey in the sport but he thinks differently. In his words, his achievement of representing the country in the Para-Olympics is his greatest feat. Upali had the privilege of representing the country in the Para Olympics in two consecutive occasions; 2008 & 2012 and he believes that it is his highest accomplishment.

    Upali, now looks at a qualification for Rio 2016 Para Olympics and says it is a tough challenge ahead of him. “ I am currently in the 66th rank, if I need to qualify for the Olympics, I need to improve it to 36. There are a set of tournaments coming up so depending on the performance in them, I think I can get there.”

    Support and backing for Wheelchair Tennis has seen a considerable rise according to Upali. When he took up the sport, there were only 12-15 people playing the racket game but now it has risen to around 45.

    “Our coaches have always been the people behind us, Mr. Jagath Welikala has been with the team since 2003 assisting us at all times and also Mr. PS Kumara has also been assisting us at all times. The Sports Ministry has been assisting us at our requirements. Recently they brought us wheelchairs for our games so support has been good”

    Upali, who now nears the 40th believes that he still could be an active contributor to the sport for many more years. A family man, Upali is a father of two. “I have two children, the eldest is nearing her O/L’s, I travel every Friday to Kekirawa and then return back on Monday. My wife has been the pillar of my success supporting me and the family in my absence”

    At this juncture in life Upali Rajakaruna mentions that this facelift changed his entire life story giving him new meaning. From a person who had never heard nor seen the racket sport, Upali’s love for the sport is unending. He believes that he needs to give something back to the sport that moulded him.

    “I would have never been here if not for the efforts of my coaches and my comrades. In gratitude to what the sport has given me, I would like spend some of time after I retire playing the sport coaching the younger ones” thanks Upali for spending his time with us and we came away feeling privileged to have encountered such a spirit. We wish Upali the very best in all his endeavours.