IN THE end, in the wistful summation of host captain, Marcos Ondruska – the final result on the last day of the new format, two-day 5-rubber BNP Paribas Davis Cup Europe/Africa Group 1 tie between South Africa and Israel reflected an “unfortunate finish to the whole thing here.”
Yet the tie had literally commenced with a bang [two, to be precise] from stunt grenades lobbed in and outside the serene and manicured grounds of the Irene Country Club, from a standoff between anti-Israel protesters from the Palestinian Solidarity Alliance and a joint show of force comprising the SAPS and a private security company.
The standoff must have offered some form of contrast from the perspective of passengers of a Rovos Rail luxury train passing by on the railway line along the M18 roadway as flag-waving, slogan-chanting activists drawn from organizations such as the SACP and the ANC forced a late Friday afternoon gridlock just as 21 year old South African prospect, Lloyd Harris got courtyard matters underway against 254-ranked Edan Leshem in the first singles rubber.
Speaking amidst a crowd donned in headscarves, brandishing vuvuzelas and banners scribbled with critical statements and waving Palestinian and SACP flags, a representative of the alliance who introduced himself as an international human rights attorney named Ziyaad Patel, latched onto the presence of the media by expressing the view that South African tennis players should never participate in the tennis tie against Israel.
“Israel should be isolated until it is changed into a democratic Palestinian state!” asserted Patel, as shouts of, “Phambili nge Palestine!” [forward with Palestine] rang out from a crowd whose demonstration was restricted to the exterior of the club.
Not long thereafter followed the first of the two loud bangs inside the club’s parking lot and some mere meters from the playing court, in the process sending police and the private security personnel into some brief frenzy.
It proved to be a minor storm in a teacup though and although the noise momentarily caught Harris’ attention – the Capetonian proceeded on to put his country 1 up with a 7-5, 6-4 wrap up of the opening rubber. By which time, the protesters had dispersed up to a nearby roadside deli to receive food parcels and do some mingling with fellow activists, as well as with some SAPS members – before they headed to their respective homes in two buses and some eight minibuses transporting them.
Definitely in anticipation of the implication of the politically-charged nature of the tie, the organizers weren’t taking any chances insofar as eventualities such as the inevitable demonstration – as no less than five different security details ranging from the SAPS, Tshwane Metro Police Department, Johannesburg Metro Police Department and two private companies were deployed over the two days of play.
The weekend being the first time the new Davis Cup format was trialled, it implied that the tie was played over two days [Friday and Saturday] as opposed to the traditional three day.
Each of the scheduled 5 rubbers would be best of threes, instead of 5 sets and the captains could effect player changes to any rubber up until an hour before commencement of the rubber, using any player from the five nominated at the Thursday draw.
97th ranked veteran, Dudi Sela evened the tie in the second rubber when he overcame 326-ranked Nicolaas Scholtz 6-1, 6-7, 7-5.
A thunderstorm had forced suspension to proceedings, causing players to be sent to the locker rooms – returning only after the clouds had cleared. Sela’s experience of having, in the past, mixed it with the likes of highly ranked opponents such as David Ferrer and Andy Roddick stood him in good stead.
On the Saturday morning, with a heatwave having descended on the circuit, Sela teamed up with 40 year old Jonathan Erlich, a doubles Australian Open grand slam champion in 2008 – against South Africa’s 27th doubles ranked, Raven Klaasen and Ruan Roelofse.
With wife, Celeste watching from the stairs leading to the hospitality area whilst lulling their 6 weeks old son, Carter and the now familiar exhortations of, “Nog ‘n eenetjie!” from Setswana -speaking fan and signage installer, JT Prinsloo, booming out – the home support lifted Klaasen and his usual partner’s game enroute to a 5-7, 6-4, 6-4 win.
Sela then only had a brief 30 minutes within which to recuperate before taking on Harris in the singles match-up and fourth rubber – causing a partisan reasoning that the local lad stood a chance, since the effects of the sweltering heat and exhaustion from sweating it out in the doubles would have exacted a toll on the 32 year old.
Alas, it wasn’t to be as the campaigner who back in 2009 led his country to the semi-finals of the World Group, made light work of the 21 year old local’s resistance with a 7-6, 6-1 victory. The meagre visiting contingent couldn’t hide their delight as they levelled the tie to a two-all.
The defeat left Harris drained and devastated and he was spotted just outside the entrance to the locker rooms being consoled by members of his supportive family.
With the tie now evenly poised and the fifth and deciding rubber in the offing, clouds gathered as Edan Leshem and the local player invariably introduced as “the rock star” or “lover boy”, bandana-wearing Scholtz, warmed up.
The decider having commenced and with Leshem having raced to a 6-5 lead in the second set, the few visiting fans, probably from sensing a kill – took to ecstatically waving the Star of David about.
It became some spectacle to behold as the host spectators countered their move by belting out Shosholoza in a somehow spirited attempt at lifting Scholtz’s fighting reserves, in a moment of emotional seesaw. The likes of socialite, Edith Venter had to witness Scholtz succumb and in the process hand the Israeli team a 3-2 victory.
The latest triumph also gives Israel a 2-0 lead in the countries head-to- head standings with the Middle Eastern nation having previously overcame South Africa by the identical scoreline in the quarterfinal of a Europe/Africa Group 2 tie, back in 2001.
South Africa’s current captain, Ondruska was part of the playing squad then and at the media briefing at the conclusion to the weekend, he pointed out that what had just been meted out to his charges – was a lesson they’d better take into the future.
TSA roped in former squad player and current ATP tour coach, Jeff Coetzee as consultant coach and he was vociferous throughout the weekend courtside as he sat next to two of the country’s most promising players, Philip Henning and Sipho Montsi, who were included in the local contingent as hitting partners – geared to gain them Davis Cup experience.
The two teenagers, 17 and 18 respectively, are the faces of the local sport’s development and Bloemfontein-based Henning recently impressed by qualifying for the Trafalgon Junior International where he beat world 8-ranked junior, Nicolas Mejia of Colombia in the opening round.
Montsi was a hitting partner with the Protea squad during last year’s Davis Cup home tie versus Slovenia and rose to prominence when his play at the 2017 Junior Australian Open earned him praise from Andy Murray’s mother, Judy.
Courtside, Montsi, an instantly likeable lad, whose family had recently relocated to Cape Town, expounded on his academic and career goals which encompassed securing a sport scholarship to a US college, and which he intends utilizing as a springboard to improving his rankings and ultimately standing him in good stead to, in the near future, developing him to become the first African player to represent the senior tennis team.
It was heartening to see and observe the amount of support the local contingent enjoys from travelling family members and friends as they were out in full force – parents, siblings and kids.
Klaasen, whose parents always make the trip up to Gauteng to watch him play, spoke of how being a new father to tiny Carter meant that he’s had to adapt to different scheduling, whereby he has to cut the amount of tournaments he participates in, as well as the travelling. Having recently changed playing partners, he disclosed that he was now aiming at playing a maximum of three competitions in the course of 2018.
Harris, whose lookalike sister always flies up from Cape Town to see him play also, told journalist at a press conference whilst seated alongside Ondruska, that he has benefitted from the ITF Grand Slam Development Fund’s sponsorship.
After the past weekend dampener, all is not lost though, as the KIA South Africa team have to pick themselves up to square off in a play-off later in the year, in order to remain in the Europe/Africa Group 1.