Heartbreak as SA bow out of Open singles

If it had not been conceived before, the dictum about “snatching defeat from the jaws of victory” would surely have been invented on a heartbreak day for South African tennis at a cloudy, but rainless Montecasino on Thursday afternoon.

After hovering on the verge of securing two notable quarter-final berths in the rejuvenated R5-million South African Open at the gaming and entertaintment resort on the outskirts of Johannesburg, long-serving Davis Cup stalwart Rik de Voest and booming, 6ft 5in server Izak van der Merwe both bowed out in three tense sets on a day of stunning and unpredictable momentum swings.

De Voest was beaten 4-6 7-5 6-4 by Portugal’s elegant Frederico Gil after a protracted two hours 28 minutes of engrossing tennis, and dark horse French qualifier Sebasttien de Chaunac accounted for Van der Merwe by a 6-7 (7-3) 7-5 7-6 (7-5) margin in just less than three hours, during which there was only a single service break.

And, if anything, it was De Voest who felt the excruciating pain more—not only because he had an inviting match point at 5-3, 40-15 on service in the second set and has added an impressive aggressive element to his solid strokeplay, but the 28-year-old Milanese-born South African had promised big things in this tournament.

Then, to add injury to insult, De Voest damaged a calf muscle with the score at 2-2 in the third set and became a sitting duck target for his increasingly more enterprising and confident opponent.

“The pain is considerable,” said De Voest afterwards. “But it’s not so much the pain in my leg. It is the pain of losing after I was a mere point away from victory.

“The injury,” he added, “does not appear that serious.”

At different stages, both the 23-year-old Gil, who looks like a clinical dentist and extracts as much power as he can from a booming, top-spin forehand, and the athletic De Voest dominated proceedings and oozed confidence.

Then, at other times, they faltered inexplicably and allowed the opposition to gain control.

Gil, for example, looked in control with the score 4-2 in the first set; then De Voest stormed through seven successive winning games and should have made it eight—something which if he had achieved and made the score 6-4 4-0, would probably have enabled him to win comfortably.

Gil, currently ranked an ominous 99th in the world—about 60 places better than De Voest—showed his fighting spirit by recovering to 3-3.
Then when confronted by a match-point at 3-5, 15-40, he went for broke with a succession of sterling winners.

And, then in the third set with the match still in the balance, the Portuguese number one demonstrated an admirable touch while leaving the hapless De Voest between the devil and the deep blue sea with artistically directed lobs.

Van der Merwe, a wild card into the tournament like De Voest, began with a barrage of aces on the B Centre Court and looked as though he would overpower the surprise Australian Open qualifier, who eventually went out in the second round of the grand slam event against James Blake.

But in addition to his tenacity, De Chaunac demonstrated an admirable all-court game till the see-sawing match still hung in the balance at 5-5 in the third set tiebreaker.

At which point De Chaunac made his move and a relieved voice in the crowd shouted “vive la France”.—Sapa

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