Memory serves – reflection of South Africa’s proud track record at the US Open

Memory serves – reflection of South Africa’s proud track record at the US Open
The dashing Cliff Drysdale was a star performer in New York although he never won the singles title. (Photo: Evening Standard / Hulton Archive / Getty Images)

As the championships begin, we can reflect on an impressive roster of locals who have made remarkable impacts in the event’s 142-year history, including the men’s wheelchair winner.

Lucas Sithole is a name known to few local sports fans, but he’s the only South African ever to win a singles title at the US Open Tennis Championships or its predecessor, the US Nationals. Sithole won the men’s wheelchair quad singles in 2013 and has Donald Ramphadi and Kgothatso Montjane trying to emulate his success this year.

But there are several South Africans who have made a significant impact in the event’s storied 142-year history. Three local men have reached the singles final and we have an excellent doubles track record.

The standout story is that of Eric Sturgess. Now largely forgotten, he was a stylish and successful player in the years after World War 2. He lost to Pancho Gonzales in straight sets in the US final of 1948 when the tournament was played on grass at Forest Hills.

Gonzales, of Mexican heritage and an outsider to the crusty US tennis hierarchy, went on to become a temperamental and charismatic stalwart of the professional circuit after he left the amateur ranks.

Read more in Daily Maverick: South Africa has a US Open champ – his name is Lucas Sithole

Remarkably, Gonzales won an SA Open doubles title with Ray Moore at Ellis Park in 1969 – 21 years after his US title win over Sturgess.

US Open tennis Lucas Sithole

Lucas Sithole is the only South African to win a singles title at the US Open. He won the 2013 men’s wheelchair quad singles title at Flushing Meadows. (Photo: Wessel Oosthuizen / Gallo Images)

After attending Parktown Boys’ High, Sturgess was a 19-year-old accountancy student, and had already won the South African title, when the world war broke out. He enlisted in the SAAF and his war ended disastrously.

His obituary in the London Daily Telegraph in 2004 described what happened: “He was flying at 50ft when his Spitfire was hit by anti-aircraft fire.

His sporting record is impressive, but no doubt it would have been even more so if six years of his prime had not been spent fighting Hitler.

“His engine caught fire, and he climbed to 700ft, rolled the plane onto its back, slid back the canopy and baled out. He was captured on landing and sent to the air force officers’ prison camp, Stalag Luft III, in eastern Germany.”

Two years after his release from captivity, Sturgess was in the French final (losing to Hungarian József Asbóth), then the US final the following year and the French again in 1951 (losing to the Czech playing under the Egyptian flag, Jaroslav Drobný). He did win six Grand Slam doubles titles, including the 1947 French with Hilton old boy Eustace Fannin and the 1949 US mixed doubles with American champion Louise Brough.

Sturgess claimed a record 11 South African national singles titles, with revenge over Drobný in the 1954 final.

He also played a few games of first-class wartime cricket with tidy returns for his medium pace.

His sporting record is impressive, but no doubt it would have been even more so if six years of his prime had not been spent fighting Hitler.

While we are saluting all-round talents, it’s worth mentioning that Drobný was also a world-champion ice -hockey player and that one of Sturgess’s local doubles partners in the 1950s, Leon Norgarb, is the only person to have played at both Wimbledon and the British Open golf, for which he qualified at the urging of his friend Bobby Locke.

Dashing Drysdale

Cliff Drysdale was South Africa’s second singles finalist in New York, losing in four sets on grass to Manuel Santana in 1965. That was no disgrace as the Spaniard was ranked No 1 in the world at the time, had won the French in 1964 and would win Wimbledon the following year.

Drysdale did later claim a US men’s doubles title with Briton Roger Taylor in 1972. A handsome, charismatic figure, Nelspruit-born Drysdale was the first president of the players’ association, the ATP, and for many years was a renowned commentator for ESPN.

In the women’s doubles, Linky Boshoff and Ilana Kloss claimed a famous title win in 1976, knocking out the likes of Billie-Jean King and Virginia Wade along the way.

Our last singles finalist, and the only one on the hardcourts of Flushing Meadows in Queens, was Kevin Anderson, who was drilled by Rafael Nadal in 2017. Often underappreciated, the 37-year-old Johannesburg beanpole has been in two Slam finals (also losing to Djokovic at Wimbledon in 2018) and has won more than $17-million in career prize money.

He has just returned to the circuit from a short-lived retirement and has followed in Drysdale’s footsteps by being president of the ATP Players’ Council.

Eric Sturgess

Eric Sturgess (1920-2004) of South Africa was a war hero and a superb tennis player. He lost the 1948 US Open final against Pancho Gonzales. (Photo: Reg Burkett / Keystone / Hulton Archive / Getty Images )

On the doubles

Aside from Sturgess and Drysdale, there are many other South Africans to be found on the US Open doubles honours boards. For one remarkable seven-year period – 1976 to 1982 – there was always at least one South African to be found in the US mixed doubles finals.

There were wins for Frew McMillan, the disgraced Bob Hewitt (who was convicted of rape in 2015 and released on parole in 2020), Greer Stevens and Kevin Curren. Elna Reinach also won that title in 1994 with an American partner, Patrick Galbraith.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Weird Wimbledon ’73 – A boycott, Borgmania and Linky Boshoff, the SA star who made Snoopy swoon

In the men’s doubles, the legendary pairing of McMillan and Hewitt (three-time Wimbledon winners) surprisingly only won once, in 1977, when the US Open was having a brief flirtation with clay courts.

Kevin Curren won in 1982 with American Steve Denton, and Pieter Aldrich and Danie Visser triumphed in 1990.

Kevin Anderson

Kevin Anderson  was the last South African to make the US Open final in 2017. He lost in straight sets against Rafa Nadal. (Photo: Sam Tabone / Getty Images)

In the women’s doubles, Linky Boshoff and Ilana Kloss claimed a famous title win in 1976, knocking out the likes of Billie-Jean King and Virginia Wade along the way. Both Ros Fairbanks and Amanda Coetzer were losing finalists in their time.

Sadly, there’s no chance of anyone adding to the South African honour roll in New York this year, beyond the wheelchair competition.

Since the precipitous decline of Lloyd Harris, our tennis cupboard is bare in 2023, with not a single player ranked in the top 100 of either the men’s or women’s game and no one featuring in the doubles seedings either. DM

Mike Wills is a writer and broadcaster.

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.


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