Awakening the sleeping tennis giant that is South Africa

South Africa's Kevin Curren played in two Grand Slam singles finals and reached a career high of No. 5 in the world. AP Photo/Bob Dear

It's 1985, and all over South Africa children are glued to their television screens, watching Kevin Curren battle for the Wimbledon title, dreaming of one day emulating his achievements on the tennis circuit.

Curren was in his second Grand Slam final in a year, and though his dream was dashed, famously, in four sets by a 17-year-old Boris Becker, South African tennis was in its prime. Three years earlier, Johan Kriek had won his second Australian Open title.

Fast-forward a couple of generations, and things are rather different. Fourteen years after Curren's run at the All England Club, there were still 32 South Africans in the singles, doubles and mixed-doubles draws at Wimbledon in 1999. This year's Championships? So far just two South Africans are set to participate. And South Africa doesn't have a Challenger Tour tournament, never mind a tour-level event.

But from the ashes there may just be a glimmer of hope. Under the leadership of new Tennis South Africa CEO Richard Glover, who was appointed last September, there is optimism that things will turn around. A few more ITF Futures events are popping up, and the enthusiasm is growing.

"Tennis in this country is a big sport, but it's very much a sleeping giant," Glover said. "I'm hoping in the past few months with my arrival and some very good people working diligently behind the scenes that that sleeping giant is starting to stir somewhat."

A lack of investment in key structures -- because of a federation with very few resources -- has affected the country's ability to develop players and maintain participation levels. Glover, whose background includes time with Arsenal Football Club, hones in immediately on the finances.

"That's been my No. 1 focus the past few months," he said. "But the good news is that we've secured three corporate sponsors in the past few weeks and are about to announce a fourth. That definitely helps and also sends a very positive message to corporate South Africa, that something is happening in tennis."

Money, as it is so often, is the rub. The value of the South African rand has fallen through the floor, from about 2R per U.S. dollar in 1985 to more than 13 today. In the past decade, the structures that once produced the likes of Wayne Ferreira and Amanda Coetzer have disintegrated. It is expensive to play, and even when there are talented juniors, the cost of traveling has been prohibitive.

"One of the problems is [tennis is] just not particularly big as a sport, so you end up playing a lot of the same people all the time," said Mark Petchey, a former coach of Andy Murray who now lives in South Africa. "So if you don't have a lot of money or if you're not, say, one of the top two, where the federation did give a bit of help, you don't get to travel much, you don't get much exposure to other players, other standards, so obviously there is a tendency to become a big fish in a small pond."

Despite the downfall, South Africa's exposure on the global tennis scene hasn't disappeared completely thanks to the success of Johannesburg native Kevin Anderson, who reached the top 10 of the ATP rankings in 2015, and Durban-born Liezel Huber, who won three of her seven career Grand Slam doubles titles before becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen in 2007.

Seeing the likes of Anderson do well is surely an inspiration to juniors, even if some coaches feel the fact he hasn't represented his country in recent years is a problem.

"Kevin's done great for his career, but the fact that he doesn't play Davis Cup and didn't go to the Olympics at Wimbledon, that hurt us," said John-Laffnie de Jager, a South African coach and former player who reached as high as No. 11 in the doubles rankings. "Kids say, 'Yeah, Kevin is great, but why is he not playing for South Africa?' It snowballs. Kids say, 'Kevin didn't go to the Olympics; it doesn't inspire us.'"

Glover feels that seeing Anderson do well in the biggest tournaments is just as important, if not more so, than him playing Davis Cup. The two met before Christmas, and Anderson came away more positive than ever before about the future of the sport in his homeland.

"I was very excited listening to his goals, aspirations, where to take tennis in South Africa," Anderson said. "I think it comes down to the junior development, but at a very young age, with kids just starting the sport -- not that you know they're going to be playing tennis [professionally] -- and giving them proper coaching. If you have that and you have increased interest in the sport and you also have people doing well at the top end, I feel like that would be the three-pronged approach."

De Jager currently runs the Match Point Foundation in South Africa, where he and other ex-players try to share what they learned on tour with aspiring juniors.

"There were 10 guys who would train in South Africa and play tournaments," de Jager said. "I think six of us played for five or more years on the tour. Six or seven of us got into the top 50 in the world in doubles. That was the good times. We were fortunate there were opportunities for us."

Glover has been consulting with anyone and everybody in South African tennis and says he is looking at the landscape on three levels: "High performance, participation, which is your schools, clubs, universities, where the majority of tennis players in this country sit, then the interest layer, where the majority of tennis fans in this country sit."

Competing for the attention of young players in an age when they can see any number of sports is a tough sell. Tennis clubs are no longer the social hub for families they once were. Innovation is the key, and the country is investing heavily in beach tennis, taking advantage of its natural resources.

"It's a commercial vehicle from a sponsorship perspective, but also it's a great opportunity to introduce people into the sport in a non-threatening way," Glover said. "It's easy to pick up a bat and ball on the beach and hit it around. And the other thing that's quite interesting for us as a third-world country and a developing country, using it as a development tool in terms of reaching as many communities as possible."

Using former players such as Ferreira, who has recently begun working with the Davis Cup squad, and the country's top coaches, even if they are based elsewhere, is also vital to the development of the sport.

Glover is especially proud that, more than 25 years after apartheid, there is a more diverse population showing interest in tennis. "Spending power still sits in the white population, but it's too simplistic to say it's a white sport," he said. "We've got some really exciting athletes of color coming through. The African junior championships is happening at the moment, and in the under-14s, it's virtually 50-50 white players, black players. That's really, really exciting."

Glover has given himself a self-imposed five-year deadline to make a difference, and though he's positive for the future, he's also realistic. "I don't necessarily think we can put tennis back to where it was maybe a generation ago," he said. "The foundations across the three levels are really solid and starting to bear fruit. Tennis is never going to be as big as the big three, rugby, cricket and soccer, but it should be the fourth.

"I'd like participation to be doubled, and I'd like us to be producing junior players that are highly ranked and are really representative of the demographics of the country at a very high level. That's what I'd like to achieve."