SA must beat Macedonia
Johannesburg - The bad times are still good as South Africa's Davis Cup squad begins preparation for next week-end's Euro-Africa Group One Davis Cup tie against Macedonia at Emperors Palace.
This was the positive assessment of captain John-Laffnie de Jager during a media conference call on Monday that heralded the start of the South African squad's 2009 campaign to regain an elusive place in the Davis Cup World Group by the end of the year.
In order to achieve this, South Africa will need to beat the relatively modest Macedonians at the gaming and entertainment resort adjoining OR Tambo Airport, overcome a more formidable Belarus in what would be another home tie in May and then gain the upper hand against one of this year's World Group first round losers in a play-off.
And all this at a time when South African tennis is again feeling a financial pinch as a result of uncertainty over the ongoing South African Airways sponsorship and the relative down-grading of tennis by the South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee which has adverse monetary considerations.
"Because of these factors and other reasons," said De Jager, "we have been unable to offer our top players the kind of contracts and incentives they had last year and which guaranteed their availability for all Davis Cup fixtures.
"But," added the South African team captain, "the general attitude and commitment of the players remains of the highest level in spite of top-ranked Kevin Anderson's unavailability for the Macedonia tie.
"There were some exceptional reasons for this," added De Jager, "and I'm sure Kevin will be available for what could emerge as tougher battles that lie ahead - although it is ironical he incurred an injury while preparing for the Memphis ATP tournament and will be out of tennis for several weeks in any case."
The South African captain's more immediate problem is an enviable one -having to decide which of the two in-form players, Izak van der Merwe or Raven Klaasen, to utilise as the replacement for Anderson in the singles against Macedonia - with the ever-dependable Rik De Voest assured of the other berth.
" Rik, Izak and Raven all performed impressively - and even above expectations - in the recent South African Open at Montecasino," said De Jager, "and I'm confident that whichever two end up playing the singles, we'll get top-rate performances."
The South African captain said he would only make a final choice for the mandatory four-man squad against Macedonia shortly before next Wednesday's draw, with Van der Merwe seemingly having one foot in the door in the selection stakes over Klaasen by virtue of a superior world ranking of 286th against 325th.
The eighth-top pairing of Jeff Coetzee and Wesley Moodie would represent South Africa in the doubles, with Moodie, who plays little singles these days, an emergency standby in the singles.
De Jager says conditions at the specially-constructed Emperors Palace Tennis Arena appear ideal for South Africa - with the pace of the ball at high altitude on a slow surface helping account for Denmark 5-0 under similar circumstances last year.
"I'm looking for something similar this time," said the South African team captain, "but it is never wise to take anything for granted in Davis Cup competition where the form book is often thrown out of the window -even with the Macedonians a relative unknown factor and their top player ranked 825th in the world."