The 35-year-old return match

The Oxford Dictionary defines an Indian summer as a belated period of warm, sunny weather that materialises long after expected.

And, notwithstanding that summer might officially be a few weeks off, South Africa’s crucial Davis Cup World Group tennis play-off against India at Ellis Park next weekend could constitute a long-delayed “Indian summer” of tennis. It symbolically erases the bitterness of an aborted tie that should have taken place 35 years ago.

On this occasion re-entry into the elite segment of the Davis Cup will be the objective of both teams—instead of winning the event, as it was back in 1974. The stakes are high indeed.

Whichever team wins at Ellis Park will be rewarded with matches against world-class players such as Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Roddick in the World Group.

Back in 1974, in a time of growing international isolation because of apartheid, South Africa had qualified for the final of world tennis’s most celebrated team event for the first time since its inception in 1900.

But the blue riband tie didn’t materialise, with India refusing to play in South Africa.
It also made it clear that the South African team would not be granted visas to enter India, before rejecting all efforts by the International Tennis Federation (ITF) to stage the final in a neutral country.

The outcome was that South Africa was awarded the title by default and became only the fifth country—joining the United States, Australia, France and Great Britain—to be crowned Davis Cup winners in the tournament’s 74-year history. It’s an honour that is enjoyed by only 12 countries to this day.

Australian-born Bob Hewitt, a winner of 14 grand-slam titles, was in the South African squad that rode the bumpy ride to the 1974 final. He reminisced this week from the Eastern Cape, where he is a farmer, about the experience that was exhilarating but fell “a little flat” after the initial excitement had been digested.

“You don’t want to win something as prized as the Davis Cup without playing for it,” Hewitt told the Mail & Guardian.

Hewitt, with Ray Moore in the singles and Frew McMillan as his doubles partner, beat an Italian team that included the charismatic Adriano Pannatta 4-1 in a memorable tie at Ellis Park in the semifinals, which aroused great expectations about the final that never was.

“South African sport was under constant siege and self-examination,” said Hewitt. “Even our number-one player at the time, Cliff Drysdale, made himself unavailable for Davis Cup action.

“During a tie against the United States, demonstrators covered the court in oil and made it unplayable. We played Brazil in Uruguay because the Brazilian government would not grant us visas. And numerous countries withdrew from the Davis Cup in protest of South Africa’s appearance.

“Eventually the ITF declared South Africa persona non grata because it was threatening the existence of the event.

“The irony of it all,” said Hewitt, “was that tennis was booming in the country. Drysdale reached the final of the US Open and was ranked fourth in the world at the time.

“Frew and I won five grand-slam doubles titles and were one of the top couples on the international circuit. The South African Open attracted stars of the calibre of Rod Laver, Jimmy Connors, Arthur Ashe, Billie-Jean King, Chris Evert and Margaret Court.

“Enterprising promoter Owen Williams elevated the SA Open to a level where it was considered the fifth-most important tournament on the world circuit. The game was booming internally despite the outside pressure.”

In many ways next week’s tie at Ellis Park takes place in an environment mirrored in diametrically contrasting images. South Africa has been out of the Davis Cup World Group for 11 years.

South Africa’s leading player today, Kevin Anderson, is ranked 150th in the world and his only similarity to the urbane Drysdale, whom South Africans may have heard eloquently commentating on US Open on TV this week, is that both made themselves unavailable for critical Davis Cup action.

In another paradox, Prakash Amritraj, the son of Vijay Amritraj, who would have been India’s number one player had the 1974 final materialised, has recently been vetoed from playing at Ellis Park next week by the Indian government because he does not have an Indian passport. He travels on US documents.

The Indian team’s number two singles player, Somdev Devvarman, has twice been US College champion and has performed more creditably than any of the South Africans in the US Open singles at Flushing Meadows. The rising 24-year-old recently beat the world’s 16th-ranked Marin Cilic and poses a severe test to South Africa’s likely top seeds of Rik de Voest and Izak van der Merwe.

But playing on home turf, especially on fast-medium courts and at a familiar high altitude, appears sufficient to place the hosts as favourites despite India boasting the world-class doubles duo of multi-grand slam winners Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi.

The Indian doubles stars, who in recent years have forged formidable partnerships with other players, will be matched in all respects by Wesley Moodie, who is ranked ninth in the world among doubles players.

Moodie terminated a successful pairing with countryman Jeff Coetzee at the start of the year, but they are expected to be reunited for the Davis Cup. The big question is whether Coetzee can overcome his slump to match the three other players, who are all ranked among the 10 best doubles players in the world.

The Ellis Park Arena showdown will comprise two singles matches on Friday, the doubles on Saturday and two reverse-singles on Sunday. And even at an indoor venue, this “Indian summer” promises to restore Davis Cup tennis in South Africa to a level of intensity, vibrancy and excitement it has not seen since losing World Group status 11 years ago.

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