SA tennis can still rally

Durban-born Australian Open director Craig Tiley with 2014 women's champion Li Na and 380 ball boys and girls. (Getty)

Durban-born Australian Open director Craig Tiley with 2014 women's champion Li Na and 380 ball boys and girls. (Getty)

Craig Tiley's blueprint to revive South African tennis to the halcyon levels of the 1960s and 1970s was rejected as "too ambitious" and not financially viable by the South African Tennis Association in 2003.

It resulted in him stepping down from his position as the country's Davis Cup captain and pursuing his career in the United States initially and then in Australia.

This week, 53-year-old, Durban-born Tiley continued to go from strength to strength as the pivotal influence behind Australia's tennis boom.

At the prize-giving ceremony after the Australian Open men's singles final at Melbourne Park, the newly annointed champion, Stanislas Wawrinka, and world number one Rafael Nadal echoed the sentiment that "Craig Tiley is the best tournament director in the world – and at the helm of the best-run tournament".

No idle praise this for the man who has been doing the job so successfully for the past eight years and was recently rewarded with the appointment as chief executive of Tennis Australia, in addition to running the country's lucrative grand slam event.

Record attendance
The Australian Open this year boasted approximately R300-million in prize money alone, attracted more than 700 000 spectators over two weeks, with a single-day world record attendance of 82 000 at a sumptuous venue that boasts three main courts with covered roofing among its awesome facilities.

Tennis South Africa claims it does not have the finances to stage even a low-key international event of any stature, with the plug recently pulled on the relatively modest Soweto Open ATP Challenger tournament when the government decided not to renew its financial backing.

Ironically, 35 years ago the roles were reversed as far as South African and Australian tennis were concerned, with the doyen of local promoters, Owen Williams, having taken the game to such great heights at a thriving Ellis Park that he was plotting to hijack the grand slam status from a struggling Australian Open.

Williams accepted a lucrative position with oil tycoon Lamar Hunt's World Champion Tennis organisation and systematically South African tennis began its current descent into limbo.

Missed opportunity
Tiley's success in Australia is evidence that a great opportunity was missed. In eight years as Australian Open director, he has established the event as the biggest annual sporting tournament in the southern hemisphere.

In an interview from Melbourne, while outlining a renewed blueprint for the revival of tennis in South Africa, he said he was ready to provide assistance wherever he could.

"To kick-start the process," said Tiley, who received his education at Bryanston High School in Johannesburg, "it is imperative for South Africa to stage a world-class event that attracts top players and interest all round the globe."

Tiley's proviso is tinged with bitter irony in view of the fact that the ATP-sanctioned South African Open, which was revived for three years in 2009 after more than a decade in limbo and made encouraging progress at the Montecasino entertainment complex in Johannesburg, has again gone out of existence.

Long-term approach
"A successful, high-profiled event drives widespread interest," said Tiley. "This is converted into growing participation in one way or another.
In this way the support will mushroom and grow.

"Obviously this needs government and private enterprise support," added Tiley, "but the message must be brought home that the long-term benefits more than justify any investment. The Australian Open benefits the state of Victoria alone to an annual amount of R3-billion.

"It is essential to think big and act boldly. The Open is now not only the springboard for creating tennis interest in Australia, but greatly promotes the country as a tourist venue.

"I am sure there are people in South Africa who know how to get the job done," said Tiley.

"There are also many South Africans around the world – and others who are sympathetic – who would provide additional expertise and support to revive the game of tennis in South Africa."

International support
Tiley is one of them. "I continue to have a great interest in the progress and success of South African tennis," he said, "and I am ready to provide support where I can if it is requested."

Tiley spent several successful years at Illinois University in the US, where he received awards as American intercollegiate "coach of the year" and was honoured at the White House by then-president George Bush.

He coached South Africa's last top 10 world men's player, Wayne Ferreira, while at the helm of the South African Davis Cup team from 1999 to 2002, as well as many other ATP and South African players based in the US.

His message to "think big" was not implemented in 2002. Will the policy be put into place 12 years later?

This week, following last year's Davis Cup relegation, South Africa face an unknown and unheralded Monaco in a third-tier, Euro-Africa Group Two tie at the Irene Country Club on the outskirts of Pretoria. Admission is free and Tennis South Africa is not sure it will be able to fill the 700 seats.

Local heroes
Clearly there is a long way to go. But some encouragement and motivation emerged at the Australian Open when the seasoned Raven Klaasen reached the final of the men's doubles in partnership with American Eric Butorac – beating the world number one couple of Mike and Bob Bryan along the way.

The achievement generated nationwide sporting excitement and some might actually venture to Irene to have a peek at the 31-year-old King Williams Town-born doubles expert.

On the singles front, the towering, 2m-tall Kevin Anderson has promised big things while occupying a current world ranking of 22nd in spite of an alarming dip in form during the latter part of 2013.

Anderson's success, however, has been greatly tempered by his reluctance to participate in the Davis Cup over the past three years when his presence might have earned South Africa a position in the prestigious world group of the competition instead of languishing in the doldrums and playing against Monaco in what is the third division.

And for sheer inspiration for how South African tennis can overcome the odds, one need look no further than the number two world quadraplegic player, Lucas Sithole, who followed up his achievement of winning the quad event at the US Open in September by taking the runners-up berth in the Australian Open.

Not only has Sithole defied all the odds after having both his legs and his right arm amputated in a tragic train mishap as a youngster, he was also born right-handed and has had to perform his amazing feats on the tennis court by adjusting to become a left-hander.

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