/ 4 February 2011

Cloud of doubt casts shadow over Montecasino finale

As the third version of the resurrected South African Open tennis tournament comes to an absorbing conclusion this weekend, it would seem that all is fine and dandy at Montecasino, one of the most eye-catching venues on the international Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) circuit.

In truth, however, it might well conceal the illusionary expectations of a punter at the adjoining casino anticipating to hit the jackpot. Hanging over the head of the South African Open’s future like the sword of Damocles is the stark reality that the R3,5-million tournament might not take place next year.

Indeed the autocratic, often obnoxious ATP has already removed the event from its 2012 calendar following the end of a three-year contract with the South African Tennis Association (Sata).

The ATP’s reasoning is that some of its more illustrious billionaire superstars have complained that the tournament circuit is too long and arduous, so the number of events has been trimmed.

The more modest ones, like the South African Open, and particularly those where the contracts have expired, have bitten the dust.

The 2012 Olympic Games in London will also take a chunk of time from other sports itineraries next year — another excuse the ATP is using to axe tournaments.

But Ian Smith, the Sata chief executive, said: “This does not mean there will not be a South African Open in 2012. I will be holding discussions with the ATP within the next couple of months and hopefully we can come to an arrangement to keep the tournament alive.”

‘No comment’
Determined as the forthright Sata chief executive — who was once Dr Ali Bacher’s sidekick in running South African cricket — might sound, there is a pervading sense of uncertainty. And when he is asked whether there is a good possibility of the ATP reinstating the South African Open for 2012, the reply, “no comment”, is not reassuring.

But where there is hope there is always a chance, they say. Smith said that he might not only persuade the ATP to restore the South African Open in 2012 it might even agree on a more suitable date than the present one — it follows hard on the heels of the Australian Open Grand Slam tournament.

This discourages many players from coming to South Africa and it also tends to overshadow all else that is happening in the tennis world — and it is not easy gleaning publicity in the face of heroics of Djokovic, Nadal, Federer and their ilk.

So Smith will venture into the ATP lion’s den in the coming weeks, but he will be backed with the moral and financial support of the South African government and the Lotto board — and perhaps some sympathetic sponsors.

“It won’t be the end of the world if we don’t have a South African Open in 2012 with ATP international status” is a view emanating from tennis officialdom. “We can always come back the following year, restructure and provide a better tournament than before.”

But this could be easier said than done. The absence of a fully fledged South African Open next year would not only be a major blow to the event itself but might also deal a body blow to the future of not only South African tennis but the development of the sport in Africa as a whole.
And when the ATP deals sympathetically with the desires and whims of its well-rewarded and generally pampered players, it might well give a thought to its responsibilities in furthering the greater interests of the sport.