Do you remember Johan Kriek, Kevin Curren, Bob Hewitt, Cliff Drysdale, Piet Norval, Neil Broad or even perhaps Wayne Ferreira? I am guessing the last name might be the only familiar one – and only slightly at that if you are a real tennis fan.
South Africa tennis has been on the downward spiral since the early 1990′s with Wayne Ferreira being our last great tennis player. Yes Wesley Moodie has won a Wimbledon doubles title but do people really know him?
Where is all the talent? South Africa is a huge sporting nation with one of the top cricketing teams in the world, the world champion rugby team and world class swimmers. South Africa boasts great weather, excellent facilities and phenomenal and passionate coaches, so why are we not producing world class tennis players? The answer is complicated but it boils down to mismanagement and money. The national association is grossly under-funded and where there was once an entire organization committed to tennis in South Africa, the organization is now manned by a one-man show in the name of Ian Smith. He has single handedly kept the association alive by bringing new life into tennis in South Africa bringing back the South African Open and enticing some smaller ITF events. This is one great step in the right direction. Lets’ hope it is the first of many. I remember watching Goran Ivanisevic at the South African Open when I was a junior player and it was incredible.
So where are our talented juniors going? College. Ninety-nine percent of all top SA juniors are finding their way into US colleges where they are moving through the colleges ranks and only a very few are then venturing out onto the tour. The top juniors in SA have no other opportunity even if they are good enough to turn pro, there is no support in the way of funding, training or coaching to help them make the transition from the junior ranks to the pro level.
College has been good to a lot of SA players as it has been giving them a great education and – for some – a spring board into the pros. But we are losing too many as these players have nowhere to turn after the great support they receive in college.
There is a light at the end of the very long road back and his name is Kevin Anderson, a former University of Illinois student who was brought to the US and coached by Craig Tiley, who was then the South African Davis Cup coach and has now moved on to be the Head of Tennis Australia. (That is another great loss to SA tennis but is another story.)
Mr. Anderson has risen to No. 110 in the world in less than a year and has a huge game that has already got him to his first ATP final in Las Vegas and beating world No. 3 Novak Djokovic.
South African tennis needs a hero. Is Mr. Anderson that hero? Let’s hope so for the future of South African tennis and to help reinstate the great tradition of great tennis players hailing from a great land – South Africa.