Ball not in SA's court

The South African Tennis Open has made remarkable strides in just more than two years—graduating from a challenger to a fully fledged Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) World Tour tournament.

Yet the ability to produce a local player with a realistic chance to ace it ahead of the visiting foreign legion remains a distant dream.

Since the retirement of Wayne Ferreira in 2005, once the world’s number six, local tennis has failed to find a competitive replacement to complement the country’s growing influence on the global scene that will culminate when some of the best players in the world gather at Montecasino this month.

A quick tour with some of the leading figures of the game, both locally and internationally, earlier this week revealed that Montecasino’s Outdoor Event Venue, host to the January 31 to February 8 tennis extravaganza, is fast taking shape.

ATP executive vice-president Gayle Bradshaw made a stopover en route to the Australian Open and expressed his satisfaction with preparations.

‘I could not be any happier with the way things have progressed since my last visit here in August.
Montecasino could well be one of the best venues on the circuit,” said Bradshaw after his inspection of the centre court.

World number six Jo-Wilfried Tsonga leads the respectable field with his in-form and extremely exciting French countryman Gael Monfils, who stunned world number one Rafael Nadal 6-4, 6-4 in the Qatar Open quarter finals last week.

The French duo will be joined by 2006 Australian finalist Marcos Baghdatis, world number 12 David Ferrer and veteran Fabrice ‘the Magician” Santoro, who, at 36, holds the world record for the most grand slams played.

The good and the bad
It is against this background that South Africa Tennis Association chief executive Ian Smith pointed out that the SA Open has made incredible inroads since its return in 2007 after a 16-year absence.

‘We have been fighting tooth and nail for the past three years to match the expected standards in the ATP tour and I feel this field is testament to our remarkable efforts,” said Smith of the tournament, which has grown to a tour event in record time.

But local tennis enthusiasts, who have already snapped up all available final and semi-final tickets, will once again have to contend with the fact that none of the three South Africans playing in the Open can really be tipped to reach the final, let alone win the premier event.

Locals who have been thrown into the fray as wild cards this year are Rik de Voest and Raven Klaasen.

De Voest may be one of the stalwarts of the South African Davis Cup, but his ranking of 157 failed to earn him an automatic qualification — he had to enter the main draw through the back door.

Still, he is the best of the local trio. Last year in East London the 28-year-old reached the quarter-finals of this event before losing to top seed and eventual winner Ivan Ljubicic 7-5 6-7 (6-8) 3-6.

Klaasen does not inspire much confidence either. The 26-year-old is ranked a lowly 356 in the world and among his recorded victories last year are those in the less glamorous Futures events in South Africa and Botswana — tournaments entered by players desperate to improve their rankings.

The third wild card entry will be awarded to the SA Nationals winner, to be known only at the end of the month.

Recession hits women’s game
The women’s game is even gloomier, with no major international tournament pencilled in for South Africa in the foreseeable future that could maybe motivate youngsters to follow in the footsteps of Amanda Coetzer.

Nicknamed the ‘Little Assassin” in her heyday because of her knack of demolishing opponents ranked higher than her, Coetzer retired in 2004, much to the detriment of the sport.

Like Ferreira, Coetzer spent most of her playing career in the top-20 bracket and was at some stage the third-best female tennis player in the world.

Once again the women, despite unconvincing protests from the powers that be, will have to contend with being reduced to ogling the physiques of the male ATP stars from the stands — if they are lucky enough to get hold of fast-selling tickets.

‘It is not that we are neglecting women’s tennis, but the world economic downturn has rendered it practically impossible to source sponsorship for a women’s tour event,” said Smith.

Given that the crippling economic crunch is relatively new to be advanced as an excuse for the underdevelopment of the sport among women, South African tennis bigwigs should not be surprised if their assertions fail to convince even their most ardent admirers with the great work achieved in the men’s competition.

Still, barring the rain coming down this month end, the Montecasino venue is well situated to host a fantastic SA Open.

The expected galaxy of stars battling for the whopping R500 000 winner’s cheque will no doubt be pampered by the complex’s two world-class hotels, variety of restaurants and cinema, which will gladly take their foreign currency.

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