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I Love Nigeria
Jun 26, 2011, 04:21 AM
As a Source of Tennis Stars, Africa Runs Dry
http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/26/sports/tennis/african-tennis-players-no-longer-among-worlds-best.html?hp
By CHRISTOPHER CLAREY

WIMBLEDON, England - Brian de Villiers was in the player restaurant high above the grass courts here last week, leafing through the pages of a resort brochure from the scenic southern African country of Namibia.

De Villiers was born in Botswana and grew up in what is now Zimbabwe. Though he is now a United States citizen and makes his living by coaching American tennis players like Melanie Oudin, he has a longstanding goal to develop champions in Africa.

"I want to come at the end of the year and have a look at this," DeVilliers said of Namibia. "Throw in some tennis camps and try and get some kids going and get some help from over here and try and do it."

In the 1990s and into the early 2000s, Africa was still an integral part of the Grand Slam tennis scene, with players like Wayne Ferreira and Amanda Coetzer from South Africa, the Black siblings from Zimbabwe and Hicham Arazi and Younes el-Aynaoui of Morocco competing at the highest levels in singles or doubles. But instead of building from that platform, African tennis has lost altitude in a sport increasingly dominated by Europe.

Morocco, which once had three men in the top 30, no longer has anyone in the top 300. Countries like Nigeria and Ivory Coast that once occasionally produced players have no one in the top 1,000, and Zimbabwe, after a decade of political upheaval and economic hardship, no longer has any men or women ranked in singles.

"It is frustrating," said Doug MacCurdy, the former head of development for the International Tennis Federation, who has worked extensively in Africa to coach and promote the game. "It would seem like there was progress, so why couldn't you build on it? It's sad when it's stagnating."

Some of the game's biggest stars do have African connections: Roger Federer's mother, Lynette, was born in South Africa, and he has done extensive work there with his foundation. The Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga's father, Didier, once played handball for Congo, and Tsonga visited there after reaching the Australian Open final in 2008.

But Africans themselves are no longer making much impact. Ons Jabeur of Tunisia is generating expectations after winning the girl's title at the French Open at 16, but the only African woman in this year's Wimbledon singles draw was Chanelle Scheepers of South Africa. Scheepers, who lost in the first round, is the only African woman ranked in the top 200 in singles. Kevin Anderson and Rik De Voest of South Africa, the two African men in the singles draw, lost in the second round.

Anderson - ranked 36th and in the midst of an encouraging season - is the only African man in the top 100.

De Voest, 31, who finally qualified for Wimbledon this year, was born in Rome, was raised in the South African capital Pretoria, and is now based part of the year in Austin, Tex., where he trains occasionally with Andy Roddick. Clearly a global citizen - his wife is Canadian - he still feels proudly South African.

"Tennis in Africa is a vast topic," De Voest said. "It needs awareness and interest in the African countries to develop more interest.

"And I think with Kevin doing well now and in the top 50, I think that's great to have kids that can have an idol to look up to who's playing consistently in the top events and challenging good players. That way, they can see that it's an interesting sport, and that they might want to be part of it and follow it. We haven't really had that. After Wayne Ferreira, we didn't really have anyone."

Ferreira, with his big forehand windup and all-court athleticism, was the last true South African tennis star: reaching two Australian Open semifinals in 1992 and 2003, and ranking in the top 10 in the mid-1990s.

South Africa has long been the engine of tennis on its large and heterogeneous continent. It was a founding member of the I.T.F., but the sport's history in South Africa is deeply intertwined with the apartheid era. It was considered a sport for the white minority, and India forfeited the 1974 Davis Cup final to South Africa, whose team was led by Bob Hewitt and Frew McMillan, in protest of its segregationist policies.

The apartheid system was dismantled in the 1990s. But the new South Africa, for all its power to inspire, has not been able to translate the energy into producing more tennis champions.

"There's a huge tradition of tennis, but I think their federation underwent a lot of changes that I'm sure were very justifiable," MacCurdy said. "They put a lot of money into trying to encourage development of tennis in the population that had not played tennis before, basically in the black areas."

Yet other sports with strong roots in the white community, including rugby union and golf, have continued to thrive in South Africa. In the past year, one South African golfer, Louis Oosthuizen, won the British Open, and another, Charl Schwartzel, won the Masters.

"We have a lot of golf tournaments in South Africa and a lot of interest and the guys are doing well," De Voest said, "and therefore it creates even more interest. So it's kind of a snowball effect."

He added that a "vicious circle" was at work for tennis: few tournaments at home or close to home allow players to compete for ranking points, and as a result, interest from potential sponsors is weak.

"South Africa is so far away, so to gain any international exposure to other tournaments is just so hard," De Voest said. "As a developing junior, you are sheltered in what you are exposed to and then you go out in the big world, and it's a bit of a shock to the system to a lot of us. And that's coupled with the fact that it's a lot more expensive to travel financially for South Africans."

Exposure to elite competition at an early age has become critical to developing champions, and it is also a concern for traditional but isolated tennis nations like Australia and Argentina, which find themselves far from the European power base. For most African nations, the economic concerns and organizational issues are daunting, particularly in a sport where - compared with soccer - only a small number of players eventually break through to make a good living as touring professionals.

The I.T.F. continues to finance traveling teams for players from developing countries. The small group of juniors it is helping to bring to Wimbledon this year includes players from South Africa, Zimbabwe and Madagascar. But the road to the business end of a Grand Slam tournament is particularly arduous in this era. For now, Africa is not keeping pace.

I Love Nigeria
Jun 26, 2011, 04:23 AM
No Tennis Courts, No racquets, no balls, no clubs... but there are millions of churches and pastors with private jets in Nigeria! Praise God!