South African tennis badly needs a champion

2009-09-26 00:00

IT has often been surmised that what South African tennis needs to rekindle the halcyon days of the 1960s and 1970s is to unearth a charismatic hero — but sadly it is not a sentiment one can proclaim as being any nearer following the deflating Davis Cup defeat against India last weekend.

Instead of the inspiring boost that had been widely anticipated — perhaps even taken for granted — the South African dream of a return to the elite World Group after 12 years was shattered by a uniformly competent Indian squad in front of a vocal and supportive, yet disappointingly modest crowd of 2 000 at the 5 000-seater Ellis Park Indoor Arena.

And while the final scoreline in the play-off of 4-1 for the Indians after the token last match was misleading — in view of the memorable encounter in which Rik De Voest came within two points of levelling at 2-2 before losing 3-6 6-7 (3-7) 7-6 (7-5) 6-2 6-4 to the super-fit Somdev Devvarman in an enthralling four hour, 44 minute marathon — the search for a charismatic hero who could transform South African tennis in a wider context remained unfulfilled.

On the issue of heroes, there is the case of the reluctant, might-have-been South African hero and current No 1, Kevin Anderson, who made himself unavailable for the Indian tie with one of the most inappropriate pull-outs in the annals of South African sport.

Only enigmatic goalscorer Benni McCarthy has done something similar by making himself unavailable for Bafana Bafana’s qualifying soccer games that ultimately cost South Africa a place in next year’s African Nations Cup tournament in Angola.

Anderson may have tipped the scales in South Africa’s favour had he turned up at Ellis Park. The excuse that he needed experience in European clay court tournaments at the time of the Davis Cup play-off was lame — even if, as some have darkly suggested as the root cause, he had a fall-out with South African Davis Cup captain John-Laffnie de Jager.

He would have benefited materially had South Africa qualified for the World Group of the Davis Cup with his role playing a part, being then afforded the valuable experience of playing against the likes of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Juan Martin del Potro and Novak Djokovic.

What is more, a new ATP ruling decrees that players now gain world ranking points from World Group Davis Cup games — and this would have helped Anderson as well.

And so the question must be examined as to where South African tennis is heading following a deflating setback.

As far as South Africa’s Davis Cup prospects are concerned, it will be a return to the Euro-Africa group one next year with an opening game against either Finland or Poland in May — not an easy or enviable proposition in what is effectively the “second division” of the competition — with the prospects of challenging for World Group status possibly fraught with serious problems if the draw decrees more away games than in 2009.

Then there is the issue of unearthing a player of exceptional ability and appeal who might best be able to rouse South Africa out of the lethargy that has seemingly gripped the country in supporting the world’s second-most popular and diversified sport after soccer.

International Tennis Federation (ITF) officials at Ellis Park over the weekend were astonished that an event of such magnitude and importance for the country was staged with 60% of the stadium’s seating empty.

“In any European country,” said one official, “you would not have been able to find an empty seat for any amount of money — and I don’t expect it would be any different in North America, Australia, South America or Asia, where tennis is growing in leaps and bounds.”

With no disrespect to Cliff Drysdale, who was rated fourth in the world; Wayne Ferreira, a player of boundless talent who earned a world ranking of sixth; Kevin Curren, who reached the Wimbledon final by beating John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors before losing to Boris Becker; Johan Kriek, who annexed two Australian Open titles, Bob Hewitt, Frew McMillan and others, one needs to go back 50 years to the 1940s to find a South African male tennis player who was revered as highly as Gary Player, Bobby Locke or Ernie Els.

He was the unassuming, but tough-as-nails Eric Sturgess, who never won a Grand Slam singles title, but was one of the most elegant stylists from a bygone age of the game. Sturgess reached three singles finals and won three Grand Slam doubles titles from nine finals.

He was ranked fourth in

the world, participated in an epic US Open final against the great Pancho Gonzalez and was a genuine national sports hero — fuelled, perhaps, by his heroics as a pilot in the SA Air Force during WW2.

Sturgess was sent to Italy with the SAAF’s Spitfire Squadron to engage in dive-bombing and strafing ground targets. His Spitfire was hit by anti-aircraft fire and his engine caught fire, forcing him to climb to 250 metres, roll the plane on to its back, slide open the canopy and bale out. He was captured and sent to the the air force officers’ prison camp, where he spent the rest of the war.

Now there’s the kind of hero who could transform and revitalise South African tennis. — Sapa.

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