De Voest keeps hopes alive
Johannesburg - It was a bleak opening for South Africa when the qualifying rounds for the Australian Open began at Melbourne Park on Thursday.
Of the four South Africans competing in the first qualifying round, only 30-year-old Davis Cup player Rik de Voest progressed to the second round after accounting for Belgium's Maxime Authom 6-0, 4-6, 6-1 in an encounter lasting two hours and 20 minutes.
But 6ft 5in, 27-year-old Davis Cup regular Izak van der Merwe went down 6-4, 6-2 to the little known Taipei player, Jimmy Wang.
Seeded fifth and expected to reach the main draw of the tournament, which starts on Monday, Van der Merwe's timid exit was particularly deflating after recent impressive results had improved his world ranking to 115th - only two positions off his career-best rating.
A third South African in the 128-player men's qualifying segment, Raven Klaasen, put up a gallant performance, but was shaded 6-4, 6-3 by the Czech Republic's seasoned Jan Hernych.
And it was an unhappy baptism into big-time international tennis for 19 year-old Chanel Simmonds, considered by many to be the most promising among the up-and-coming group of South African players - either in the men's or women's segment.
Playing in her first senior event, Simmonds, who has elevated her world ranking from 400th to 186th in the last 12 months, was outplayed by France's wily Claire Feuerstein and never got into her stride in a 6-1, 6-2 defeat.
"It was a bitter pill to swallow for Chanel after she had won four ITF Futures tournaments in South Korea, Indonesia and Argentina in 2011," said her coach, Earl Grainger, from Australia, "but, at the same time, it was a revealing insight as to what is in store in order to reach the top bracket in world tennis."
Grainger said Simmonds had only arrived in Australia a couple of days before her game against Feuerstein and was unable to show her true potential at such short notice.
"The occasion was just a little too much," added Grainger, "but the experience was invaluable.
"We all have to go through this kind of ordeal," said Grainger, himself a sturdy performer on the ATP circuit before turning to coaching.
De Voest needs to win two more matches to qualify for the first round of the Open, starting with a game against Farrukh Dustov of the Ukraine.
Top South African men's and women's players, Kevin Anderson and Chani Scheepers, ranked 32nd and 38th in the world respectively, are automatic qualifiers into the main draw - which is due to be made on Friday.