GAME, SET, HEARTACHE
Pain of a South African’s shattered dream of playing at Wimbledon remains 52 years later
In 1971, at the height of apartheid in South Africa, 18-year-old Durban-born Hoosen Bobat was set to play on the grass courts of Wimbledon, but his dream was taken away from him two weeks before he was to serve.
The 136th edition of the Wimbledon Championships started this week with close to 300 players hoping to have their names engraved on trophies.
In 1971, an 18-year-old South African, Hoosen Bobat was among the hopefuls in the men’s junior championship. At the time, apartheid-driven segregation barred participation in sport between white and non-white athletes in the country.
But the nonracial Southern Africa Lawn Tennis Union (Saltu) – a separate entity to the white tennis union at the time – sent six young black players on a four-month tour of Europe in 1971, one of whom was young Bobat.
Bobat had applied and was accepted into the juniors, having satisfied all the criteria.
“When my entry to Junior Wimbledon was accepted it was a surreal moment,” Bobat said in a BBC interview last week.
[He] was here on behalf of the white racist tennis body from South Africa and objected to my entry in Junior Wimbledon.
“It was absolutely unbelievable that this 18-year-old black kid from apartheid South Africa with no formal coaching, no sponsors for equipment, no proper facilities… I had to actually travel over 50km just to practise once a week.
“And now, for me, after all these years of training and practice, hitting for hours on end on a wall, I now had the opportunity to play on the greatest stage in the world.
“When my entry was accepted, there was great joy and celebration back home in South Africa among the black, nonracial fraternity.”
But just prior to the start of the tournament, Bobat was called into the offices of the International Lawn Tennis Federation (ILTF).
“My entry to the All England Lawn Tennis Club was accepted by them at that time. But about two weeks before Wimbledon was about to start, I received a telegram from the ILTF requesting a meeting at the head office in London,” he explained.
“I was told to bring my captain, and so I was accompanied by Jasmat Dhiraj, who was the captain of our squad.”
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There, Dhiraj and Bobat met Basil Raey, the general secretary of the ILTF at the time. But the two tennis starlets recognised a familiar face in the office too – a member of the white-tennis fraternity was there along with Raey.
“[He] was here on behalf of the white racist tennis body from South Africa and objected to my entry in Junior Wimbledon,” Bobat said.
“The objections [for Wimbledon entry] were based on the very criteria for which I had been accepted in Junior Wimbledon that [he] said that I was not the No 1 [junior tennis player] in South Africa.
“But we said that we were not allowed to play against them. They also said that we’re not affiliated to a recognised body.
“But when we arrived in the UK, the squad, we applied and became members of the Coolhurst Tennis Club in the north of London.
“In fact, ironically, we had played under the auspices of many tournaments under the ILTF at that time.
“So, at that meeting, Basil Raey, after about one hour, got up and said ‘tomorrow, I will instruct the All England Club to remove your name from the draw’.
“And for me, just like that, it was all over. Game set and match.”
It was difficult for Bobat to pick up a racquet after the devastation he experienced on that day in the Wimbledon offices.
“It’s a dream of every kid to play a Junior Wimbledon itself. And for me, it would have been a gateway to my future tennis career,” he said.
“And also for every black kid back in South Africa, you know, it would have been an inspiration. It was a chance for them to hang on despite all the struggles and the hardships of the apartheid regime [that] anyone can still make it to the top.
“But the words of Basil Raey, still ringing in my ears 52 years later, when he said: ‘Tomorrow I will inform the All England Tennis Club to remove your name from the draw.’ For me, that was an absolutely heart-shattering moment and I was taken out of the draw.”
Seeking an apology
Saleem Badat, research professor in the Department of History at the University of the Free State, recently published a book, Tennis, Apartheid and Social Justice: The First Non-Racial International Tennis Tour, 1971, which details Bobat’s late exclusion from Wimbledon as well as the accounts of the other participants of the four-month European tour including Hiralal (Dhiraj) Soma, Alwyn Solomon, Oscar Woodman, Hoosen Bobat and Cavan Bergman.
Badat and Bobat were in London last week seeking acknowledgement as well as an apology from the All England Tennis Club for Bobat’s exclusion from the tournament in 1971.
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All England Tennis Club chief executive Sally Bolton responded in a written reply: “Our Club Historian is in the process of reviewing the information we have in the archives regarding how entries were handled for the Junior Championships that year, which we had understood to be nominations via national federations.
“We would be very grateful if you were willing to share any further information you found during the course of researching and writing your book, which could give us a fuller understanding of events.”
Bolton has said she is currently unable to meet in person with either Badat or Bobat due to her commitments to the 2023 Wimbledon tournament.
“Prevarication in dealing with this issue will only add salt to a long-standing wound,” added Badat in reply.
“I have therefore written to her again, saying we very much hope that the issue will be treated with due urgency.
“Her initial reply to me said that entries that year were via national federations, but she seems not to appreciate that, in the context of apartheid, a black South African would not have been permitted to be a member of the racist, exclusively white national federation. That was forbidden by law.
“The exclusion of Mr Bobat from Junior Wimbledon in 1971 is a profound matter of social justice that touches on questions of ‘race’, diversity and inclusion, issues that the All-England Lawn Tennis Club states that it is committed to confronting.
“I hope that this commitment will extend to rectifying past injustices. Mr Bobat’s 1971 exclusion is an opportunity for the [All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club] to acknowledge a 52-year wrong and contribute to healing a sore that has festered far too long.” DM