Soweto: Tennis anyone?

SOWETO, South Africa – Katlego Seko is shy and looks quite a bit younger than her 16 years, but ask her about her tennis aspirations and she displays an unsuspected amount of bravado.

“I’m already a professional,” Seko said. “Watch out for this space.”

As a member of a club that is currently lacking net posts, Seko faces significant hurdles to realize her sporting goals, but her fledgling tennis career just received a major boost. Until recently, South Africa’s most populous black township, with more than 900,000 residents, couldn’t have been farther from the glamorous world of professional tennis. Now, that world has come to the heart of Soweto.

Over the past few months at the Arthur Ashe Tennis Complex, Seko has hit balls with the world’s number nine  player, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga of France; she has worked as a ball kid on two professional tennis tournaments — one for men and one for women — and one Davis Cup tie and has picked up valuable tips on how to improve her serve in the process. In a couple of years, she plans to take part in the women’s event as a player.

Seko’s dreams are what the late American tennis great Arthur Ashe envisioned when he founded the Soweto tennis center in 1976 to promote the sport among the country’s blacks at the height of the apartheid era. The courts later fell victim to vandalism and poor maintenance but were revamped in recent years by the city.

Fostering tennis in the black community is also what the South African tennis body had in mind when it decided to host the tournaments in Soweto. As with other sports in the country, tennis authorities are under pressure to increase the number of professional black players to be more representative of South Africa’s racial makeup.

“The (Soweto) public have now been exposed to tennis,” South African Tennis Association (SATA) Chief Executive Ian Smith said. “There are a lot of kids that are now wanting to play tennis.”

By organizing the Soweto tournaments and a higher-level competition in northern Johannesburg in February, SATA also hopes to raise the level of local pros. South Africa produced some world-class players in the past – Wayne Ferreira reached number six in the world in 1995 while Cliff Drysdale, now a commentator on ESPN, was a top player in the 1970s. Amanda Coetzer was ranked as high as number three in the world in 1997. But now, South Africa’s best-ranked player is Kevin Anderson at 169. By comparison Spain, which has a  population about the same size as South Africa’s 44 million, has 15 male players ranked in the top 100. On the women's front, South Africa is barely better positioned with its best player, Chanelle Scheepers, ranked 149 in the world.

The reasons for the sport’s demise in South Africa are multiple. Other sports like soccer and rugby have grown in popularity at the expense of tennis. The sport is relatively expensive and even more so for South Africans. Tournaments of all levels abound in Europe and the United States but are few and far between in South Africa and the rest of the African continent. As a result, aspiring players are forced to spend fortunes to travel to tournaments overseas or simply emigrate.

One of these players is Raven Klaasen. He took up tennis when he was six, but he said his progression was hampered by the lack of appropriate structures.

“My generation, when we got to 18 there was no next level for your tennis,” said Klaasen, 26. “You had to go abroad.”

Now, things may be looking up.

South Africa’s Davis Cup team just defeated Belarus and will vie for a spot in the top division in September. Rik de Voest, South Africa’s second-highest-ranked player, reached the final of the recent Soweto tournament. To organize the Soweto events, SATA trained scores of local adults and children as officials and ball kids, and many have decided to try a sport they knew nothing about just a couple of months ago. The Arthur Ashe complex already counts eight courts, and another eight are under construction.

Many hurdles still exist, however. For one, the sport remains overwhelmingly white. With a world ranking of 312, Klaasen is South Africa’s best-ranked player of color. Local black players were given an opportunity to qualify for the two Soweto tournaments but none made it into the main draw. On most days, the stands were almost deserted despite the events being free of charge.

SATA’s Smith admitted that he was disappointed by the small crowds as few living outside Soweto made the trip to the tournaments. Fifteen years after apartheid, most whites and blacks still live in separate areas, and the rare whites venturing into Soweto are usually tourists on organized tours.

“You’ve got to get people’s minds to change,” Smith said. “It’s a process of people getting used to coming to Soweto.”

More GlobalPost dispatches on South Africa:

Pretoria's new symbol of freedom

Final results of South Africa's elections, Jacob Zuma to be new president

Inside the Mighty (mainly white) Men's Conference




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