ATP Tour

Marathon job reviving SA tennis to its former heights

Sy Lerman (File)
Sy Lerman (File)

Cape Town - In a year-end review of South African tennis and looking towards reviving the game in the country to its former notable heights, Tennis South Africa CEO Richard Glover has likened the progress in 2018 to negotiating the first 10km in a gruelling marathon. 

"When all is said and done I am satisfied encouraging progress has been made," assessed the TSA CEO after the second year of his tenure.

However, few will need reminding that the iconic marathon race, designated in memory of Pheidippides' fabled run from Marathon to Athens to spread news of a victory in the battle-torn town, stretches to a distances of 42.195km - and that by mathematical calculations requires a figurative 32.195km amount of work to be done before South Africa might again win the monumental men's Davis Cup and women's Fed Cup events and the currently non-existent South African Open can again be regarded as the fifth most important tournament on the planet as it was in the 1970s.

At the top level, therefore, the job has hardly got off the ground, although Glover points out that the individual achievements of current world sixth-ranked singles player, Kevin Anderson, and world-class doubles exponent Raven Klaasen and to a lesser extent the up-and-coming Lloyd Harris, have helped generate interest in tennis in the country.

But against this, Anderson, who now lives in the United States and alone could have made a world of difference, has had no direct contact with South African tennis in the seven years in which he has boycotted playing in the Davis Cup, while the staging of what should be a permanently entrenched South African Open remains no more than a mirage after a similar absence of seven years.

The recently completed three-tier Futures Opens in Stellenbosch are assuredly better than nothing, but can realistically be rated in soccer terminology in the "sixth division" of world tournaments behind the Grand Slams in the top bracket, followed by Masters 1 000 events; then in third place ATP 500 tournaments; ATP 250 events  and the ATP Challengers - with the Futures tournaments reserved mainly for players ranked 400 and lower in the world

Finance is the perennial bogey that it is said to have kept South Africa staging world class tennis tournaments for so long. And achieving the objective certainly requires a hefty amount of cash. But it is something of a conundrum that a sport like golf manages to overcome the monetary hurdle and can attract some of the world's best players to South Africa on a regular basis.

Where Glover rightly detects improvements in South African tennis is at grass roots level, with an 8% increase in junior tournaments in the country in 2018; the junior nationals attracting the largest field in a decade; a 12% increase in registered coaches  and significantly, the ITF awarding South Africa one of the top five A Grade junior events in 2019.

The CEO remains hopeful of organising a major tournament featuring some of the best players in the world in 2019, even if it is not part of the official ATP or WTA schedules,  spreading tennis interest and participation to outlying areas and erecting a number of clay courts to assist in the various development programs.

But like Glover himself admits, running a tennis marathon is no easy undertaking - even in a country with favourable weather conditions and a great many more courts than a myriad of countries who are doing a lot better with a lot less.

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