Searching for the next Kevin Anderson

Tennis South Africa (TSA) has previously openly admitted that it failed Kevin Anderson. When he stood across from Rafael Nadal at the United States Open last year, he did so largely off his own efforts to source support and sponsorship.

He’s hardly alone. The individual nature of the sport has regularly extended to the way it is off the court as well. It’s the same book you’ve read before: a shortage of funding, little development and a lackadaisical national body governing the sport.

The tennis community now, however, feels there’s change sweeping across the courts. Unsolicited, roleplayers in the country are offering their praise of Richard Glover, the TSA’s young chief executive. Sponsorship has reportedly flowed in under his tenure, enabling the organisation to offer greater events and opportunities to its prodigal talents.

Perhaps most importantly, there’s a sense that the sport’s governing body is giving the players attention. Watching their progress. Ensuring that they don’t get lost in the wild, floating around Europe or the US in search of a livelihood.

So, who are they backing to be the next Anderson?

“Me and a few guys, I would say,” says Lleyton Cronje, referring to the top-ranked junior players in South Africa. “A good buddy of mine, Philip Henning, is a really good junior.”

“If there’s somebody in the country at the moment that will ever win Wimbledon or even get to the final, it’s definitely the top three guys.”

Christiaan Worst is in his top three.

Cronje, the 108th-ranked under-18 player in the world, and Henning, ranked 50th, represent the country’s top young talents, in the estimation of the International Tennis Federation (ITF).

Both have already savoured the taste of Wimbledon, having travelled to London this year to take part in the junior event. Cronje made it to the qualifying stage and his compatriot endured a painful exit in the tournament proper.

“Wimbledon was really nice. It was a great experience for me,” says Henning. “I had a tough first match, I played against the number five in the world. Both sets I was 5-4 up and serving for the set but I couldn’t close it out. It was a good match.”

This week, at the Gauteng North Junior ITF, he humbly talks of his tennis journey. A few minutes earlier, he had swiftly dispatched his opponent 6-1, 6-4 in a match that never looked under threat. His powerful returns helped him break serve early in both sets.

Concentration is still vital in these matches, he says. It’s easy to become cocky and slip up, even if he’s become accustomed to international competition.

Such local tournaments also represent his dwindling opportunities at honing his talents before his run among the ranks of the “young” comes to an end. Turning 18 in November, Henning has just over a year to travel this grand slam circuit. After that, he must be prepared to tussle with the senior pros if he aims to make a career in the sport.

Aiding his cause is the fact that more than 40 American colleges have attempted to poach him, most of them offering full scholarships. It takes the pressure off, he says, going to an environment where coaches and fellow players are dedicated to your improvement. He reveals he’s verbally agreed to attend the University of Georgia.

Cronje will also start his life in the US at the beginning of next year. It’s one of the many parallels between the two friends. Both come from tennis-mad families and were taught to swing a racket with force early in their lives. It was at the age of nine, in fact, that they took their first trip to play overseas.

Since then, they’ve dedicated their lives to mastering the sport, pursuing any available opportunity to get better and develop their play. Their achievements are remarkable but also highlight the wall that needs to be scaled before pro dreams are entertained.

“Unfortunately, in a sport like tennis, if you don’t start from a young age and practise really hard and make it your job, then it’s going to be too hard,” says Cronje. “Even if you start playing tennis at 14, then it’s way too late and you’ll probably not make it.”

The extent to which players have to be groomed is astonishing. Then there’s the cost — those trips have to be funded and the equipment has to be bought. If they’re not playing with the best in the world, there’s no chance for them.

“In South Africa, it’s quite tough because if you want to improve your level, you have to travel a lot,” adds Henning. “In Europe, they get to play against each other the whole time. It’s an expensive sport and you need financial backing and support if you’re going to make it pro.”

To merely step on to a professional court requires a hefty bankroll. Henning reveals his racquets, thankfully sponsored, cost in excess of R4 000. He carries a few in his bag.

But now it’s time for the next phase for the two young players.

Also at the Gauteng North Junior ITF, South African legend Annette du Plooy remains critical of the junior-senior set-up. She explains that even a player like Henning, who’s ranked 50th in the world, will have to spend years grinding in the tournament basement before he comes close to a grand slam. “No one ever makes an immediate impact,” she says. “Only maybe John McEnroe and Boris Becker.”

There’s no denying that Henning and Cronje will have to summon their best if they’re going to make it. Boys will have to become men. Success now has at least manufactured a springboard into that new world and given us reasonable hope that Anderson is not a one-off phenomenon.

Luke Feltham
Luke Feltham

Luke Feltham runs the Mail & Guardian's sports desk. He was previously the online day editor.

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