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Do we finally have a reason to be excited about tennis in SA?

Keep it at a whisper for now, but South African tennis might just be heading in a positive direction. It’s spent much of the last decade ambling along with little evidence of a course in mind; any meaningful attempts to develop a plan usually catch a snag before they can grow into anything significant. 

You can pick from a long line-up of suspects to explain why this is the — lazy administration, lack of funds, an apathy for the sport and so on — but the list of viable solutions has always remained slim.

No one has stumbled on a silver bullet, but we did get a small taste of what a flourishing tennis scene might look like last weekend when the Arthur Ashe Tennis Complex played host to the RCS Rising Stars national finals. 

The event was the culmination of an almost year-long battle between hundreds of primary schools across the country. But the real draw, at least to most of the public, was an exhibition match between Kevin Anderson and Lloyd Harris. 

The opportunity to watch the highest ranked South Africans on the ATP ladder duel it out brought in hundreds of spectators and all-but filled the stadium to capacity. There was genuine excitement about the competitiveness of the game too: as friendly in nature as it inevitably was, the crowd was invested in the outcome, becoming increasingly drawn in as the two allotted sets ticked over into a tie breaker that Anderson would eventually clinch. 

A few celebrities pitched up to watch as well, adding an air of prestige to proceedings but not to the point where the outing threatened to degenerate into a pretentious polo match. Rather, it felt distinctly South African — a sense helped in no small part by a large contingent of Kaizer Chiefs fans who sang at every available interval (one can’t help but wonder that whoever encouraged them to attend didn’t also warn that tennis etiquette, unlike football, demands silence during play.)

Much of the excitement about the excursion stemmed from the fact that we simply don’t have first-class tennis to go watch, competitive or otherwise. At least until now. 

At the beginning of December, Tennis South Africa (TSA) was finally able to announce that it secured an ATP Challenger 50 tournament to be played here — the first since 2013. Given that last year 52 countries shared more than 200 ATP events, the development is long overdue and very welcome. 

Only a couple of weeks later TSA announced it had secured funding to host three International Tennis Federation events with a prize pool of $25 000 each. Nothing on these shores could match those figures last year.

All of that may not contain the gravitas of a grand slam, but it is certainly a move in the right direction and will help build the momentum that events such as Sunday’s create. (Some people might even argue that the Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal spectacle in Cape Town this Friday contributes to that cause as well.)

With growth arriving on the home front, perhaps more eyes than ever will be on Anderson and Harris in what will be an important year for both players. 

Despite the annoyance Anderson has generated by rejecting national team call-ups, he remains the best hope the country has of success in singles competition. Although in 2018 he rose to as high as fifth in the world before succumbing to injury again, time is running out for the 33-year-old to achieve his dream of going one better than his two grand slam final appearances. With a second-round collapse in the Australian Open two weeks ago, it’s clear he’s still got some work to do.

Harris received a similarly deflating exit in the form of a first-round straight-sets spanking. No one is asking him to win a major at this point, but at 23 and with an ATP 250 final already under his belt, much is expected from his development this year.

The hope is that one day Harris will reach Anderson’s level, or perhaps even surpass it. Having two South Africans competing for high honours in the space of a few years would be huge for the sport here. Long-term success, however, would come from them being able to do it on home soil one day.

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Luke Feltham
Luke Feltham is a features writer at the Mail & Guardian

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