OPINION: SA's concerning lack of top-level tennis

Roger Federer and Lloyd Harris (Getty Images)
Roger Federer and Lloyd Harris (Getty Images)

Cape Town - Going back 40 years a vibrant South African Tennis Open at Ellis Park, which had attracted players of the calibre of Rod Laver, Bjorn Borg, Arthur Ashe, Jimmy Connors, Chris Evert and others of their ilk, was widely considered the fifth most important tournament on the international calendar and rated in stature only behind the four Grand Slams.

Indeed astute tournament director Owen Williams had hopes - which never quite materialised and died a natural death when he immigrated to the United States - of usurping the prized Grand Slam position of what was at the time a sagging and troubled Australian Open.

What a massive transformation has occurred today of both the famine-starved South African and booming Australian tournament tennis structure, with no major ATP or WTA events here in eight years and embarrassingly no South African Open at all over a similar period.

And all this in a time when tennis is booming around the globe, with the International Tennis Federation's membership increased to 211 nations and the ATP alone set to complete a massive 222 World Tour and Challenger tournaments in 52 countries during 2019.

South Africa, at one time one of the leading tennis nations that regularly attracted the best players in the world, is not even one of these 52 nations and does not boast even one of these 222 events - not even at the subsidiary Challenger level.

In direct contrast, apart from the blue riband US Open, the Americans stage nine other ATP World Tour tournaments and no fewer than 21 Challenger events.

France's tournament structure, which is highlighted by the French Open Grand Slam, also includes five other ATP World Tour tournaments and 14 on the Challenger circuit.

England's tournament programme is, of course, anointed by the grandeur of Wimbledon and stages both three other ATP World Tour and Challenger events - and apart from the Australian Open Grand Slam extravaganza, there are three other World Tour tournaments down under, as well as the new World Team Cup and six Challenger events in the country.

But perhaps the greatest indictment of the South African tournament decline is that modest tennis playing countries like the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, etc are among the 52 nations who are able to stage a Challenger event that is currently ostensibly beyond the means of South Africa.

The ruling Tennis South Africa (TSA) hierarchy blames financial shortcomings for the tournament impasse and points to the growing spread of development programmes and grassroots events as evidence of a change in the tennis tide and the eagerly-awaited match-up between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal in Cape Town in February will certainly arouse more interest in a tennis event in South Africa than for many years.

But the Federer-Nadal crowd-puller is effectively no more than an exhibition that will not be included in the record books and ironically will owe its massive appeal to the absence for such a lengthy period of tournaments of top-ranked players on view.

Also, TSA has played little part in the initiative that will be staged in aid of the Nelson Mandela Children's Fund and is part of Federer's own charity initiatives in Africa.
As for an official major tennis tournament in South Africa in 2020, there are whispers of a belated ATP Challenger tournament on the horizon.

But this possibility has been heard before in recent years without coming to fruition - and like the fabled Br'er Rabbit "let's just wait and see".

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