African Tennis- Stagnation at its Worst?

 

The famous Wimbledon Tennis tournament for 2014 has come and gone.  The frustration continues for African tennis. Africa’s representative from South Africa as well as the highest ranked African on the International Tennis Federation (ITF) ranking, Kevin Anderson, tried his best but once again, was eliminated in the early stages of the Wimbledon.

Tennis is a sport which undoubtedly has always gripped the attention of the world. The various events on the international calendar are hugely anticipated occasions for the media and tennis enthusiasts all over the world, Africa included. 

The Grand Slam events of Australia, France, Wimbledon and the US Open are valuable for sports tourism, sports business in general and the profiles of the respective host countries as thousands of tennis enthusiasts travel to watch the events. 

TV rights and viewership as well as the prize monies for these mega events make them hugely anticipated events on the annual sporting calendar. 

Now why should Southern Africans or African sports lovers in general, have an interest in these events or the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) or Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) rankings? They show how far behind Africa is in terms of the performance of its tennis players in international tournaments.

Africa has produced some incredibly good competitors in the game of tennis. The Black brothers of Zimbabwe, Byron and Wayne, as well as their sister Cara are prime examples. 

The Ng’oran brothers of Cote d’Ivoire, Claude and Emile, Younis El Anouyi of Morocco, Amanda Coetzeer and  Wayne Ferreira of South Africa are also part of that small band of players from Africa who have shown great potential to compete at world level. However, despite their skill and modest achievements in world tennis, it is still a dream of every patriotic African sport lover to see an African in a Grand Slam final.

 This state of affairs inevitably leads the neutrals to pose a number of questions. What is wrong with African tennis?  Why is it that Africans are not making significant progress on the ATP and WTA rankings? Is the CAT satisfied with rate of development of the game in Africa?

 What can be done to accelerate the development of game on the continent and produce world class competitors?  Obviously, these questions do not have simple answers. It is easy to point fingers at CAT as well as the national tennis associations and blame the organisations for the stagnation or retrogression that seems to characterise the game of tennis in Africa.

Eastern Europe is currently producing more tennis stars than Africa can ever dream of. Considering that these countries are emerging from communist or socialist systems that had wreaked havoc by way of dictatorships, civil strife and even war for some of the countries, it is really amazing how Eastern Europeans are dominating the game of tennis world-wide. 

There must be some good things that Russia and the Eastern European countries do by way of tennis development even better than some richer and more affluent Western European countries and the developed world in general. 

Whatever they do has led to the creation of environments that are conducive to the development of tennis and emergence of lots of super stars in the game.

It is always easy to externalise blame for one’s predicament.  But sometimes critical introspection can raise certain pertinent facts even before external critics come, be they constructive or destructive.

 It will be easy for CAT, African tennis administrators and coaches to point out a number of disadvantages that militate against the rise of African superstars. However, this does not change the facts on the ground that African tennis has stagnated or is developing at a snail’s pace which is unacceptable considering the vast potential that is there. 

There is need for CAT and its affiliates to accelerate the development of coaches, both male and female using a Long Term Athlete Development (LTAD) approach. 

Highly qualified and experienced coaches are the foundation stone for excellence in any sport. CAT and its affiliates, including those in Southern Africa, should encourage the establishment of public and private tennis academies to provide rigorous training for talented youngsters.

 There is also need to dramatically increase number of high level tournaments that youngsters participate in on the continent. Efforts should be made to foster viable tennis leagues in various countries to foster strong traditions of competition. 

There is also need for CAT to entice corporate sponsors for Africa to have its own Grand Slam event(s) where the continent’s talented youngsters can show-case their talents even on a regional basis.

 It is not about huge amounts of prize money but more about innovation through introducing new tennis initiatives and products for a continent that is hungry for the game. 

There is, obviously, a need to rattle some cages on the continent. African sport is in dire need of a paradigm shift, not just in CAT but in a number of African Sports Confederations. 

The era of business as usual belongs to the past.  Sport is a business and needs to be run as such to foster excellence and professionalism. There is need for dynamic leadership to facilitate vibrant marketing and promotion of the game of tennis in Africa.  Without seismic shifts in the attitudes of those at the helm, including better strategic planning and management by CAT and its affiliates, we will never see an African man or woman at the Grand Slams.

CAT’s mandate goes beyond administering routine tournaments, year in, year out. Without deliberately setting performance targets, CAT will stumble from one elective congress to another with very little  to show for the passage of time in terms of value added or return on investment in the development of tennis in Africa. 

There is abundant raw talent in Africa, Southern Africa included. Given adequate support and preparation, there are a number of youngsters who could give Novak Djokovik, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Caroline Wozniacki, Li Na, Serena Williams and Venus Williams good runs for their monies.  

CAT and its affiliates must work to ensure that these youngsters are identified and developed. 

They are not just going to come or crawl out of the woodwork somehow. Innovation and more innovation is the key. Hopefully, we will see a prestigious and lucrative   African Grand Slam in our life-time!

July 2014
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