A struggle for South Africans

DAVID W. UNKLE and PATRICK WILLIAMS -- Special to SLAM! Sports

, Last Updated: 12:17 PM ET

PHILADELPHIA -- With a grueling, 11-month travel schedule, the sport of tennis demands a commitment beyond that of other professional athletes. While this year's Wimbledon (with victories by South Africa's Liezel Huber and Wesley Moodie) may prove to be a watershed event for South African tennis, many of the country's top-ranked players and future stars are struggling -- both physically and financially.

"In a good way it makes us harder," said long-time ATP fixture Robby Koenig of Durban, South Africa. With five doubles titles on his resume, the 13-year pro is now philosophical on the geographical plight of his fellow South African tennis players.

"We have to travel overseas and we can't just zip back home after 3-4 weeks because we're just tired of being away from home, because it becomes costly for you. You have to be on the road for six months at a time. I think over the long term that it might actually send us in good stead."

"On the negative side, it's the cost," added Koenig. "If you don't have wealthy parents or your federation doesn't have a lot of money, it's tough to get your career off the ground."

For those few who are able to launch their career, the road to the top 100 is littered with potholes. Players must not only finance their entries into tournaments, in many instances, they are also handling the logistical arrangements. That's when players appreciate the conflict between financial success and on-court success. You may continue to win the smaller events, improving your career from a tennis perspective while at the same time, losing on the left side of the balance sheet.

"It hits you after the match when you actually have time to sit down and think about (the financial versus performance ledger)," added Koenig. "When you involved in a match, all you're concerned about is the next point. If you have a crap-mind and your mind starts to wander (while you're on the court), first of all you don't deserve to be there."

That is when players realize, according to Koenig, that "maybe I only have six months left (to play on the tour) if I don't pull my finger out of my ass." Koenig argues that realization gives many South African tennis players a sense of determination.

"You see the same thing with the South American players," added Koenig. "They come from nothing, their federation doesn't give them one dime, yet they've got fourteen players in the top 100. You see how those guys practice and how they play. They're an example to the rest of the world."

Comparing the haves and the have-nots, Koenig added that, "maybe countries like America or England which have so much money and are able to give their players so much financial backing, well maybe it's not so good."

Financially, things have changed in the sport of tennis from the time that Rod Laver became the first tennis player to crack the $100,000 dollar threshold in 1968, followed three years later by Billie Jean King on the women's tour.

We don't have any tournaments in South Africa, so for us to start off we have to go to other countries," said Chanelle Scheepers, a member of the South African Davis Cup team. "We don't get wild cards so we really struggle to get a ranking. Other countries (that have tournaments, their players) get the wild cards and they have their ranking easy. (The South African players) have it harder but sometimes you think it makes you a tougher person."

The efforts of Ian Smith, the chief executive officer of the South African Tennis Association, gives players like Koenig hope that better funding will be available someday for tennis.

"He's a good business guy that was involved at a very high level with cricket, so he knows how the marketing strategies work," said Koenig. (Smith) handled South Africa through the World Cup of Cricket, which was a massive event, so he's got a hell of a lot experience in sports. Hopefully, with him at the reins, hopefully we can go places and rustle up some good sponsors."

Still considered a step-child to sports such as cricket, soccer, and rugby, when South Africa was awarded the World Cup football tournament in 2012, a South African bank which was a potential sponsor switched funding, leaving tennis in the lark. "It was a little unlucky," said Koenig.

While the success of Huber and Moodie, the Wimbledon men's and women's doubles champions, respectively, will help elevate the profile of tennis, Koenig believes that the future depends on its superstars returning to the nation.

"I'd love to give something back to tennis and help out some of the younger kids in South Africa," said Koenig. "Whether they could afford (to pay for lessons) or I do it pro bono, that's how much I love the sport."

Koenig points to a number of South Africans players like Pete Norville, Neil Broad (a top-10 doubles and top-100 singles player), and Kevin Elliott (Australian Open doubles champion), adding that, "if you have four or five of us, there's a wealth of experience back home. These guys have already played at the highest level and they know what it takes."

But for tennis to regain its foothold, the country's tennis culture must overcome its prior shortcomings. "South Africa has undergone tremendous change in the last 10-15 years with apartheid going away and with tennis primarily being a sport that whites played," said Ilana Kloss (World TeamTennis CEO and commissioner). "We were such an elitist sport for white people only, and unfortunately the sport of tennis got hurt by it."

Kloss feels that the country should "invest some money in getting some of the South Africans who have had success in the (WTA or ATP tours) back in the fold and having them much more involved than just Davis Cup or Fed Cup."

"The South African rand is not worth that much (compared to other international currencies) and (the country) couldn't keep up as it related to the growing demand for prize money in men's and women's tours," said Kloss. "What ended up happening was that we used to have big professional tennis events in South Africa, and they went away."

Kloss' answer begins with South Africa getting at least one tournament back on the tour calendar. In a move directed to that end, the Department of Sport and Recreation in South Africa has allocated 1,050,000 South African rand (approximately $160,000 USD) to support tennis this year.

Kloss also points out that one of the keys to developing an interest and inspiration in the sport of tennis is the ability for everyone to have live access to it. "That's one of the ties back to World TeamTennis (WTT) and how important it is for every community to have live, professional tennis where kids can come and see and aspire to play the sport."

David W. Unkle is a freelance sports writer and frequent contributor to SLAM! Sports. His work appears on several news outlets along with hosting The Topcat Sports Show in the Philadelphia market. David can be contacted via the Show's website at http://www.topcatsports.org or topcatsports@canoemail.com.


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