Two trendsetting pioneers in tennis and table tennis  

Helal Uddin Ahmed     | Published: October 12, 2018 21:58:52 | Updated: October 27, 2018 21:12:36

Following the independence of Bangladesh in 1971, there were hopes and expectations galore in all areas of national life including games and sports. Over the years, those lofty aspirations may not have fully materialised, but there were pioneers and torch-bearers in different sports disciplines, who showed the path to younger generations over the decades. They inspired and motivated the younger sportsmen by becoming popular icons during those formative years of Bangladesh. Despite various constraints, impediments and limitations with regard to opportunities and facilities, they encouraged many others to excel in their respective disciplines. Two such outstanding sportspersons who have stood the test of time for their leading roles as both players and organisers over five decades are Munira Rahman (Morshed) Helen in Table Tennis and Khaled (Salahuddin) Ahmed in Tennis. Helen was the first National Women's Champion in Table Tennis (unofficially 1973, officially 1974), while Khaled was the first Men's Tennis Champion of the country in 1972.

TABLE TENNIS ICON: Munira Rahman Helen was born on  December 20,1958 in Khulna. Her father Sheikh Abdur Rahman was a power sector engineer who excelled in sports while a student at the then Dhaka Ahsanullah College of Engineering (now BUET). Helen had to move around different places of the country during the Pakistani era due to her father's postings. It was, however, her father who was instrumental in bringing her to the sporting scene starting from Kaptai in Rangamati. She first showed her talent at the Chittagong Hill Tracts Inter-School Athletics Championship held in 1969, when she won four gold medals in 100 and 200 metres sprints, high jump and long jump at the age of only ten. She followed this up by winning gold medals in all these events as well as 400 metres relay race during Chattogram Division inter-school athletics championship held in early 1970. Then came the grand event - the East Pakistan provincial athletics championship held in Dhaka in November 1970. Eleven-year-old Helen was aiming to make it big and capture the provincial limelight by setting records as the youngest athlete in the meet. But luck did not favour her, as a catastrophic cyclone struck the province just when she was on her way to Dhaka from Rangamati. Shaken by the experience as well as fatigue and tiredness owing to long train journey, Helen could not put up her expected performance. She had to remain content with a bronze in 100 metres sprint and a silver medal in the long jump. Her rivals in these events included the famed golden girl of athletics Shaheed Sultana Ahmed (martyr), who was a university student at that time. 

After the liberation of the country in 1971, Helen had to switch gear in accordance with her family's urgings and focused on Table Tennis instead of athletics as advised by her father. They then lived in Shahjibazar, Sylhet. It was not long before she came to the national limelight within a span of just two years. In the absence of a national table tennis federation and official tournaments at the national level, Bangladesh Open Table Tennis Championship organised by Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET) became the unofficial national championship then. Helen participated in the second edition of this tournament in September 1973, and took the TT arena by storm when she defeated one ranked player after another in the women's singles event. Then in the final, she easily defeated the top seeded favourite to win the championship trophy, which she received from the then finance minister and the legendary prime minister of Mujibnagar Government Tajuddin Ahmad. The then mass-circulated popular weekly 'Bichitra' even published a cover story on Helen's triumph in the Table Tennis arena at that time.

1974 was a significant and eventful year for Helen. She joined the Table Tennis team of Dhaka's Abahani Club at the request of its founder president Sheikh Kamal along with her little sister Zobera Rahman Linu. By then, Bangladesh Table Tennis Federation had come into existence, and the First National Table Tennis Tournament was held under its stewardship in December 1974. Helen again outshone all other Dhaka-based players by winning a double crown in both women's singles and women's doubles. She won the latter title by pairing with her kid sister Linu. There was no national tournament in 1975, but Helen won the best table tennis player of the year award from Bangladesh Sports Writers' Association. The Second National TT Championship took place in January 1976, when Helen again won the women's doubles title by pairing with Linu, but lost the women's singles crown to the upcoming Kazi Zebunnesa Dila. After that, she represented Bangladesh at the 3rd Asian Table Tennis Championship held in Pyongyang, North Korea in June 1976 followed by another triumph in the women's doubles event at the 3rd National TT Championship held in Dhaka in 1977.

Unfortunately, that was the end of Helen's short TT career as a leading female player of Bangladesh, as she was married off in 1977 soon after passing the HSC examination. She left for the USA in the early 1980s with her family, but returned to the country in early 1990s after a gap of almost 12 years. Since returning home, Helen got herself involved in the management of table tennis at the national level and has already made her mark as a sincere and selfless organiser, mostly under the umbrella of Bangladesh Table Tennis Federation (BTTF). She served as a member of BTTF from 1994 to 2000, its joint secretary from 2000 to 2005, was nominated as joint secretary of South Asian Table Tennis Federation for 2004-06, served as vice-president of BTTF during 2012-13, and has been serving as elected vice-president of BTTF since 2014. Tall, pretty and now in her late 50s, she hopes to continue working for the popularisation and development of Table Tennis in the country as long as she finds herself fit and moving. 

THE TENNIS ICON: The Tennis icon of the country Khaled (Salahuddin) Ahmed was born on November 13, 1955 in Dhaka. His father Salahuddin Ahmed was a former secretary and tennis enthusiast, while his mother Khaleda Salahuddin was a renowned litterateur. Khaled started his tennis career quite early, at the age of ten, in Mymensingh, and caught the attention of the tennis fraternity by becoming provincial junior champion in 1968 at the age of only twelve. After the liberation of Bangladesh, Khaled started to play for Officers' Club Dhaka and stole the limelight when he emerged as the Men's Champion during the First National Tennis Championship held in 1972. He had just passed the SSC examination then and was only 16 years old. Not only in singles, he also won the men's doubles crown by pairing with his practice partner Harunar Rashid.  This record of winning a double crown in the men's section at such a young age would probably be never broken in the annals of Bangladeshi tennis.

Khaled extended his success of 1972 by once again winning the men's singles tennis title in 1973, but was beaten in the final of men's doubles event. He followed this up by becoming men's singles runner-up in 1977, 1978, 1979 and 1980, and regained his men's national title in 1981 after a gap of seven years. He also regained the men's doubles title in 1981, and won the crown for consecutive five years (up to 1985) by pairing with Maruf. Khaled and Maruf also won the 'Phillips International Tennis Tournament' title jointly in 1984 by beating an Indian pair in Dhaka. Earlier, he was declared 'Sportsman of the Year in Tennis' by Bangladesh Sports Writers' Association in 1977. He represented Bangladesh in different international tennis tournaments up to 1981, including the Malaysian Open Tennis Championship in Kuala Lumpur (1973), tour to Rangoon, Burma (1974), Pakistan Open Tennis Championship (1978) and Asian Amateur Tennis Championship in Thailand (1981). 

After taking retirement from the national tennis scene in the 1990s, Khaled has endeavoured to contribute his mite towards the development of tennis in this country as a coach-cum-organiser. He served as the captain and manager of Bangladesh Davis Cup squad in 2011 and 2013, when Bangladesh became champion in Asia-Oceania Zone-4 and was promoted to Zone-3. He was also the captain-cum-coach of the Davis Cup squad that played in Bahrain in 2015. He has been serving Bangladesh Tennis Federation in different capacities including as Treasurer and Vice-President, but his main emphasis has all along been on popularising the game through coaching programmes. Now in his 60s, he still plays for Gulshan Youth Club in amateur and veterans' tournaments and has already won six consecutive club titles.

One common factor that connects Khaled and Helen is that they have not yet been awarded the national sports award by the government, although many lesser mortals in their disciplines got it much earlier. These pioneers of our sporting arena have been beacons of hope for generations of tennis and table tennis players in the country. They certainly deserve recognition at the state level; and as the saying goes: 'Better late than never'. 

Dr. Helal Uddin Ahmed is a former editor of Bangladesh Quarterly.

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