Nobody may be listening, but the Westridge Tennis Stadium has great stories that need to be told

2014-02-07 00:00

THOUSANDS of commuters pass it every day. It’s one of the first buildings seen as you drive into Durban from Pietermaritzburg and the last seen as you drive out.

It’s not a striking building. In fact, it looks quite drab, a bottle-green colour, nothing fancy. It seems to have been a feature of Durban for such an eternity that most people don’t even notice any more. Comrades runners stream past it every year and, if the walls of the main stand and the concrete slabs of the stands could talk, they would capture the imagination of a captivated audience.

Westridge Tennis Stadium seems to just occupy a space these days, most people wondering if anything even happens there. Those not involved in tennis don’t spare it a thought, yet in past years, the stadium has added much colour to Durban’s character.

It all came about in 1956, when the Durban Lawn Tennis Association signed a 99-year lease with the City Council of the City of Durban.

The lease was to build and maintain a tennis stadium with a centre court and outside courts and today, Westridge boasts 25 tournament level hard courts, seven floodlit courts and seating for 7 500 spectators.

Sadly, tennis in South Africa does not allow more than the floodlights to shine at Westridge these days. The facility hosts numerous leagues and junior tournaments, plus coaching and the positive is that the courts do get used, despite the facade of the stadium being in desperate need of a touch up, hence the impression of it being more of a white elephant than anything else.

But, deep within the bowels of the stadium, for those who have lived in and around Durban for many a long year, are memories of the days when the parking was full and the lights burned long into the night.

Westridge has definitely contributed to sport and culture in Durban, with many overseas musicians and bands playing at the venue before the ICC was built and became the place to be.

Some of the acts to grace centre court at Westridge include Simply Red, Simple Minds, Bread, Bryan Adams, Live, Faithless, Crowded House and Crosby, Stills and Nash (CSN).

When CSN played at the venue in the mid 90s, Durban experienced one of it’s heaviest downpours and standing on the open stand in ankle deep water will always be a memory. As for the concert, it started about an hour late (in vain hope the rain would ease) and, with the stage also exposed to the elements, credit must be given to the seasoned musos who gave an unplugged concert with stage crew standing over them holding umbrellas.

But it’s the sporting memories that linger most. Besides tennis — and more often than not, whenever there were some big names scheduled to play at Westridge the rain came and messed it all up — the venue was popular for boxing and wrestling.

Many a father and son would enjoy a night out to watch some entertainment in the square ring. In fact, Westridge was a major venue for South African boxing, with many SA boxing titles determined.

Some of the characters of SA boxing were in action — Charlie Weir, Tap Tap Makhathini, Mike Schutte, Kosie Smith, Gerrie Coetzee, Doug Lumley, Gert Steyn, Andries Steyn, Kallie Knoetze. It was a great night out for a young lad and was also the venue where Coetzee won the SA heavyweight title after being kicked by Schutte when on the canvas.

Sadly, it was also the venue where Brian Baronet fought his last fight, dying after being knocked out in the 10th round of his fight with American Kenny Vice.

Wrestling also featured prominently at Westridge in the past.

Bouts were always well contested and the emotions of the crowd were always played on.

Most fights ended with chairs and drinks being thrown into the ring by the spectators to vent their frustrations.

Even the hugely popular WWE wrestling circus from the U.S. has stopped over at Westridge, drawing thousands of fans.

These days, the lights at Westridge burn for tennis leagues and coaching but, if you pause to listen, the walls of the stadium will tell stories that no book could ever record.

Savour them. They are timeless.

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