Johannesburg - From the 1960s to the early 1990s, South Africa was a dominant force in tennis because sponsors were pumping so much money into the sport that it had more cash than rugby and cricket, former South African tennis No 1 Amanda Coetzer has said.
The former world No 3 told City Press that, in the mid-1990s, South Africa was only behind the US and Australia in terms of the number of players representing the country at Wimbledon.
“South Africa produced a host of top players - men and women - in singles and doubles and, in the mid-1990s, had the second biggest main draw representation at Wimbledon.”
It had 22 men and 12 women in the main draw.
The former Hopman Cup champion said the reason for that success was that the country had a strong and stable national association that showed a big profit each year.
“The monies were ploughed into development and super squad systems, where top junior and emerging senior players were paid,” said Coetzer.
“Coaches were paid to travel the world with players. This enabled junior and senior players to earn important points by participating in major tournaments.”
This also served as a springboard for amateur players to move into professional ranks, regardless of whether they came from rich or poor backgrounds.
“In those days, we had major sponsorship. Tennis was the richest sponsored sport after soccer, and was even ahead of cricket and rugby. With money, anything is possible - if managed properly.”
A host of local players dominated the world rankings. Cliff Drysdale reached the final at the US Open in 1965. He reached the semi-finals of both the French Open and Wimbledon consecutively in 1965 and 1966. In 1971, he made it to the Australian Open quarter-finals.
Johan Kriek won the Australian Open in 1981 and 1982. In 1980, he reached the semi-finals at the US Open and, four years later, reached the French Open semi-finals. He progressed to the quarter-finals at Wimbledon in 1981 and 1982.
Kevin Curren amassed four Grand Slam titles in the 1980s. In 1981, he won the US Open mixed doubles. In 1982, he won the Wimbledon mixed doubles, and the men’s doubles and mixed doubles at the US Open.
Coetzer was a doubles finalist at the US Open in 1993.
She said South Africa hosted a number of international tournaments during that time and the SA Open was the fifth biggest tournament in the world after the Grand Slams.
“With South Africa hosting lots of tournaments, it gave the local players a great opportunity to earn world ranking points in their back yard.”
This resulted in players including her and Wayne Ferreira reaching the pinnacle of their careers.
They became local sporting heroes and helped generate massive interest in the game, allowing the national tennis federation to promote the game easily.
Coetzer said South Africa’s Davis Cup and Fed Cup teams were in the world groups, so when they played at home, the best players in the world would travel to South Africa. This in turn inspired local tennis players.
Tennis SA (TSA) chief executive officer Richard Glover said that it was probably harder now to make it as a professional tennis player in South Africa than it was in the past.
He said TSA as a federation had in the recent past been unable to put in place the right support structure to help the next generation.
But this was starting to change, with 15-year-old Kholo Montsi winning three titles in three weeks in Namibia, and two in Mozambique.
Philip Henning (17) made it to the junior doubles quarter-finals at the Australian Open earlier this year, and he will play at the Junior French Open and at Wimbledon. Lloyd Harris (21) was beaten in the first round of qualifying at the French Open last month.
World No 7 Kevin Anderson is the highest-ranked South African player in the men’s game.
“It will probably take a generation to get us back to where we need to be in terms of producing players to be part of the Association of Tennis Professionals and the Women’s Tennis Association,” said Glover.
He said TSA had signed about nine sponsors in the past year and a half. This week, TSA announced that French bank BNP Paribas would be the title sponsor for a new TSA coaching mentorship programme.