/ 17 December 2010

Don’t worry, be happy

Ian Smith, South African Tennis Association (Sata) chief executive, adopted the philosophical if not always justifiable approach of Mad Magazine‘s Alfred E Neuman this week, echoing the sentiment — “What me worry?”

That was no more than 72 hours before next year’s South African Open entries are due to close — without any notable star having been named for the tournament early in the New Year.

The urbane Smith may well have information at his disposal that is not known to all, but it was trumpeted loud and clear more than three months before the initial R3,5-million ATP tournament at Montecasino last year that world top tenners Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and David Ferrer would be heading for South Africa. Similarly for this year’s South African Open, it was known three months before the Montecasino showdown that charismatic Frenchman Gael Monfils and Ferrer would be heading the entry in the event, which was ultimately won by another formidable world-class star, Spaniard Feliciano Lopez.

So why the deafening silence this time? Well, without providing any adequate reason, Smith professed “there is no cause for concern at all”.

He had previously expressed the view that he expected Ferrer and Lopez to return to South Africa, but at this time he could not announce any definite commitment from either of the players.

And the lingering suspicion remains that, because of the close proximity of the South African Open, which gets under way on January 31, to the Australian Open Grand Slam tournament, the top players are reluctant to undertake a hurried journey to Johannesburg that would be followed by a gruelling fortnight in the more prestigious and lucrative Melbourne event.

Well supported
For all this, Smith pointed to the fact that the South African Open was well supported with sponsorship from the Lotto, SAA and Montecasino and there was currently a great deal happening in the negotiating melting pot. “In fact,” he said, “we are hopeful of some really big surprises before the entries close on Monday.”

Yet the fact that nothing definite is on the table at the 11th hour can only cast doubts about an event that has been a resounding success on the two previous occasions and is pivotal in reviving South African tennis to its former heights of popularity and prowess.

“The close proximity to the Australian Open is a problem,” said Smith, “and our hands are also tied because of ATP rules limiting the number of top players eligible for a 250 points category tournament.

“But we still came up with the goods on the previous occasions and I expect next year’s tournament to make a similar impact,” he said.
In his favour is the fact that the overseas players participating in the 2009 and 2010 South African Open at Montecasino have almost unanimously praised the facilities and streamlined organisation of the tournament, which they say measures up to and even betters many of the higher-graded events.

But at this stage Sata has not been able to confirm maverick South African number one, Kevin Anderson, as a participant — and even Alfred E Neuman might now be worrying a little in view of the looming deadline.