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DateLine Sunday, 6 April 2008

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Grace Somasundaram - sports star of yesteryear

TABLE TENNIS: Grace Somasundaram, a sports star of yesteryear, who passed away in Canberra, Australia, will be farewelled at Kanatte Cemetery tomorrow. In 1956 she became the first woman to win the coveted table tennis Triple Crown by winning the national singles, doubles and mixed doubles titles.

Grace Williams began playing table tennis whilst still a student at Ladies College, making her first public foray in March 1940 when she and her mixed doubles partner R.K. Sabnani were runners up in the juvenile tournament hosted by the YMCA. The Colombo YMCA was the cradle of table tennis in Sri Lanka, their events preceded the establishment of the Table Tennis Association and the advent of national tournaments.

She later turned out for the University College team along with Sarah Pestonjee. She and her partner P. Sivalingam won the University College annual mixed doubles tournament in 1942. The following year, she married Lieutenant Sri Somasundaram, a Trinity College boxing coloursman.

Grace moved into the world of open table tennis when she won the YMCA mixed doubles title in 1947 with J. Sarangapany, one of the outstanding players of the day. But it was in 1948 that she teamed up with Narrotam Udeshi who would become her long-standing mixed doubles partner. In time they would become an unbeatable combination.

At that years All India Table Tennis Championship conducted at the Colombo YMCA, they represented Ceylon. Although they lost the finals in a thrilling five-set game, the media was to report that "Bombay's brilliant combination of Uttam Chandarana and Enid Boccarro had a rude shock in store for them, when after winning the first two sets, they lost the next two to the Ceylon mixed doubles champions, N. Udeshi and Grace Somasundaram. The outstanding player among the four was Mrs. Somasundaram whose forehand drive deep down into the corners of the table were winners."

In time they would become an unbeatable combination, retaining their title unbeaten until 1954, with the exception of 1951 when Grace took leave from the game to have a baby.

In 1950, Grace won the YMCA Women's Doubles finals in partnership with Belle Weerakoon. When she returned to the game in 1952 she had a new partner, Lois de Silva, later Mrs. I.M.R. Wijetunge and together they carried away the National Women's Doubles Trophy both in 1952 and '53.

In 1953, Grace won all the doubles titles going in table tennis and represented the country at the All India Table Tennis Championships in Trivandrum. The following year at the AITTC held in Baroda, Grace Somasundaram captained the women's team; a Ceylon first. She would also captain the Ceylon women's team once again in 1955 to the AITTC held in Guntur.

In 1955, Grace won the Ladies Singles Title and retained it in 1956. And in that year she secured the Triple Crown, winning the National Ladies Singles, Ladies Doubles and Mixed Doubles titles - the first woman to achieve this honour in Sri Lanka Table Tennis. "We had stalwarts in the past, wrote a sports reporter, but never had any woman won the coveted Triple Crown.

During her table tennis career, Grace Somasundaram also took part in inter-club tournaments. Turning out first for the Twentieth Century Club and later for the Champa Sports Club. She also took part in the Bandarawela TT Tournament where in 1950 and 1951, partnered by her husband Sri, they won the open doubles event.

In addition to table tennis, Grace Somasundaram was an early motor sports enthusiast.

In August 1948, she took part in the motor races organised at the Ratmalana Aerodrome by the Ceylon Motor Cycle Club. She drove a Morris in the Ladies event, finishing second.

Commenting on the race, Guy Milan wrote: "The Ladies race in 8hp cars became a duel between Molly Mack and Grace Somasundaram.

Miss Mack led from the start and finished first, but Mrs. Somasundaram was always hard on her tail and but for the fact that Miss. Mack's Standard Tourer was a trifle faster, there was little to choose between the two."

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