A Level-Headed Optimist

A Sri Lankan sophomore embraces the joys of tennis and Kenyon

Rukshan Rodriguez, a second-year member of the Kenyon tennis team, enjoys the friendliness of campus, the camaraderie of his teammates, and a game defined by clean, simple lines. But Rodriguez is not your average tennis player, or Kenyon student.

Rodriguez hails from Nugegoda, Sri Lanka, a suburb of Colombo, the country's commercial capital and--because of a long-running civil war--a target of sporadic bombing attacks. His parents work in Colombo. They drive in together each morning, trying to avoid traffic but stopping to display identity cards at the city's random checkpoints.

Checkpoints and the possibility of violence are facts of life that Sri Lankans live with, a background anxiety in a country that boasts brilliant beaches and beautiful scenery. Rodriguez's loved ones have been fortunate, but on several occasions his parents have been shaken--literally and figuratively--by bombs detonated just a few blocks from their workplaces.

Rodriguez is practical and optimistic by nature, however, and he swats away the idea of anxiety the way he returns lob shots: decisively. Aim a worrisome thought at him, and he'll dispatch it as efficiently as the thousands of practice balls he fires over the net.

The civil war has been going on since 1983, with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam--a group labeled a terrorist organization by thirty-two countries--campaigning to secede from the government. Rodriguez can recount the details, but he'd rather talk about tennis, movies, or music, about Kenyon and the doors it's opened. He'll bend a listener's ear about being a summer science scholar at the University of Toronto, or about receiving the Intercollegiate Tennis Association's scholar-athlete award, or even about the upcoming fall semester, when he'll be studying economics at the University of Oxford.

"Rukshan is a favorite among our players," Kenyon coach Scott Thielke says. "He appreciates everything that he gets, and every time we practice he gives it his all. The diversity that he brings to our team is important. American athletes are used to having more opportunities. He brings a great deal of reality to the team."

Thielke describes Rodriguez as a sharp, level-headed young man who often seems more mature than his twenty-one years. Rodriguez himself attributes his composure to family--he stays in close touch with his parents--as well as to his Catholic faith and a dozen years of study at St. Peter's College, his secondary school in Colombo.

The composure can slip on occasion. "There are some times when [assistant coach] John [Cox] and I can tell that Rukshan is having trouble focusing," Thielke says. "But it's not because he worries about his situation back home. I believe it's because he is homesick."

Rodriguez has not been back to Sri Lanka since setting foot in Gambier two years ago. He's excited about returning this summer and seeing his family--and then returning to a busy schedule at Kenyon.

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