/ 1 May 2009

Soweto serves tennis dream

Soweto is characterised by noisy overcrowded streets, charging grey and gold Naledi all-station commuter trains and an omnipresent smog cloud draping the skyline.

But for the past two weeks Sowetans have been served something out of the ordinary — the first Soweto Open tennis tournament, held at the revamped Arthur Ashe Tennis Complex in Jabavu.

A few sounds from the main court break the quiet: racket strings thumping against a tennis ball, squeaking rubber-shoed soles, the burly voice of a match umpire and the thin applause from a few enthusiasts on the main grandstand. Here children and the elderly make up the majority of spectators.

The camaraderie seems to stem less from the game and more from the sheer excitement of Soweto hosting its first major international tennis tournament.

For the next three years, the Arthur Ashe Tennis Complex will be the official venue for the South African Open. The event is sponsored and hosted by the City of Johannesburg to the tune of R1-million in prize money and R8-million in total costs.

The complex was founded in 1976 by former American multiple Grand Slam tennis champion Arthur Ashe, the only black to have won the Wimbledon Championship to this day.

In the 1960s Ashe was the first black sportsman to participate in international tennis competitions and became an instant symbol of black pride. According to a website dedicated to his life, Ashe was known for his activism on and off the court.

He opened a tennis complex in Soweto at the peak of apartheid rule and during one of the most volatile period in South Africa’s history. He died of an Aids-related illness in 1993.

Today the complex has a total of eight world-class courts. Although it has undergone major facelifts, further developments are in the pipeline to turn it into a state-of-the-art complex after the Soweto Open. The aim, says tournament organiser Ian Smith, is to build an extra eight courts and make the complex a development centre for township tennis, as was originally intended 33 years ago.

Smith says the facilities will benefit the entire Soweto community, develop the game and host other major tournaments, youth competitions and the Fed Cup challenge between South Africa and Belarus. It already hosts daily and weekly development clinics for children and interested adults.

‘It is up to us to ensure that the facilities are used adequately to serve the needs of this community,” says Smith.

The complex is strategically located near the library and community centre. ‘This makes it easy for children to go to the library and do their homework and then get onto the courts and play tennis,” says Smith.

The Ashe courts have also brought changes to the lives of young people and has attracted many sponsors, including the national lottery.

One of the youngsters benefiting from the facilities is resident caretaker and development coach Khotso Matshego, who has been involved with the complex for the past two years.

He currently co-coaches about 40 children from Soweto, 20 of whom are already involved in major youth competitions.

‘There’s a misconception that tennis is not a sport for black people. In the past we had great black tennis players in South Africa, but because of a lack of opportunities and poor administration of the sport all the talent has gone unnoticed,” says Matshego.

He believes the Soweto Open is a good sign that there is hope for the sport in black communities.

‘I am glad that this centre has been re-opened because through it I’ve found the job of my dreams. I know that as long as there are people interested in the sport I will always have something to do,” he said.

This week saw the start of the ladies tournament scheduled to end on May 3. It follows a successful men’s tournament last week, which was won by veteran Frenchman Fabrice Santoro.

South African Rik de Voest reached the finals, a feat local ladies are unlikely to emulate, given that most crashed out of the competition in its early stages.