Sport

CATCH-UP TIME

Legends Becker and Navratilova want to see tennis growth in Africa mirror the rest of the world

Legends Becker and Navratilova want to see tennis growth in Africa mirror the rest of the world
Tennis legends: Boris Becker and Martina Navratilova at the Laureus World Sports Awards media day in Madrid. They both want to see growth of tennis in Africa. (Photo: Getty Images.)

Tennis greats Boris Becker and Martina Navratilova would like to see tennis in Africa take off.

Tennis is a global sport with players from almost every country trying to make it at professional level, while every continent hosts some level of professional tournament. 

Africa though, is falling behind, which is something that Martina Navratilova and Boris Becker, two of the greatest players of all time, would like to see change.

In recent years, Asia joined Europe and North America as a great incubator of tennis talent while South America has also produced its fair legion of Grand Slam winners. 

But Africa is languishing in a sport where just about every other continent is thriving. Tunisia’s Ons Jabeur remains Africa’s highest-ranked tennis player — female or male — at No 9 in the world. 

You have to go down to No 72 to find the next-highest-ranked African player — Egypt’s Mayar Sherif. And that’s it in the top 100 in the world. Two players from Africa in the women’s side of the equation. 

As an example of how far behind Africa is languishing, war-torn Ukraine has 13 female players in the top 400 in the world. Thailand, hardly a tennis superpower, has four players in the top 500.

On the men’s side, it’s worse. South Africa’s Lloyd Harris is the highest-ranked African player at 171. Tunisia’s Aziz Dougaz is the second-highest-ranked African in men’s tennis at 241.

Holding court 

Navratilova and Becker held court with the media for 45 minutes on the eve of the 2024 Laureus World Sports Awards in the grand atrium of the Palacio de Cibeles, Madrid’s spectacular city hall.

navratilova tennis

Martina Navratilova, who spent 331 weeks as world number one, is passionate about equality in the game. (Photo: Getty Images).

“Tennis is more international, obviously, than [when] we played,” Navratilova, who held the No 1 ranking for an astonishing 331 weeks, said. 

“I think every continent is really involved other than Africa, that still has some catching up to do. Ons Jabeur is literally the lone African pretty much on the men’s or women’s tour. 

“But overall, the sport is more international. Girls in countries that thought about playing tennis, like China, are now succeeding and now we have male players from China as well. TV has just brought it to the rest of the world and the rest of the world has caught up with their tennis. 

“It shouldn’t matter that you’re from the African continent to make it in tennis, but it has to be affordable. 

“If the infrastructure is not there, it’s very difficult. It’s that simple. Why do we have so many amazing players from the Czech Republic? The infrastructure is built in, it’s baked in.

“Every little village has two or three or four tennis courts there. You can play for free practically or … for a couple of hundred crowns and then you have good coaching … and if you really love it and you progress, then the federation takes over and gives you the support.

“But the support starts at grassroots level. Opportunities are there for the players in Czech Republic, which is why I’ve seen some of the great ones out there. 

“It’s a long-term knock-on effect. It highlights the importance of investing in grassroots tennis.”

Becker concurred: “It’s true that tennis is a truly global sport — it’s played on all continents,” he said. “I’m with you that Africa should have … a decent tournament as well, but I’m sure we’re going to get there.

“It obviously starts at the grassroots in tennis. So, federations need to be involved, and if the South African federation, for example, is not really well organised and doesn’t have any junior tournaments or lower-level tournaments, it’s very difficult for the juniors to make it.

becker tennias

Boris Becker spoke eloquently on a range of issues at the Laureus World Sports Awards in Madrid 2024 on Sunday. (Photo: Getty Images)

“Tennis is very expensive. You need the support of federations and a sponsorship early on to buy a couple of racquets and outfits and travel. 

“On the other hand, as we said before, tennis is a truly global sport. It doesn’t matter your religion and it doesn’t matter where you’re from. It’s just whether you’re good enough.”

The South African Tennis Association (Sata) hosts several International Tennis Federation (ITF) tournaments and does have a strong junior programme.

But because of South Africa’s location, travelling for top-level international competition to play against the best from the rest of the world is prohibitively expensive.

Players in academies in Europe and North America have ready-made top-level competition to tap into. African players don’t have that ability, and it requires either moving to Europe or expensive trips abroad, which very few can afford.

Sata simply cannot afford to send dozens of players around the world to compete.  

Fight for equality 

Navratilova and Becker are also strong advocates for gender equality and for sport being a positive vehicle for change. On that front, tennis has certainly taken a leadership role in promoting gender equality. 

“I want to say tennis is really an equal sport. We have men and women in the slams playing pretty much at the same time and they get the same prize money,” Becker said. 

“We have really stepped forward in today’s society of treating women’s and men’s tennis equally. And so the stardom of the Iga Swiateks of today or the Martina Navratilovas back in the day is equally big. And I can only applaud tennis for that. 

“It is true that tennis is setting the example for all the rest of the sports in terms of gender equality.  

“Tennis is one of the fine examples where there’s gender equality — the Grand Slams are male and female, the prize money is the same, the coverage from the court is the same, the women’s finals on Saturday alone, the men’s finals on Sunday. 

“I think some of the other sports should take [the] example of tennis. Another reason why so many tennis players are nominated [for Laureus awards] is because we see that. And that’s a very important message.” 

Navratilova commended tennis, but feels that the fight for gender equality across all sports still has some way to go. 

“We’ve been fighting for that [equality]. We have it in the majors, because both men and women are playing and contributing equally,” Navratilova said. 

“Outside of that, in tournaments, it’s no more difficult for women to get the sponsorship that the men get. It’s still a bit of a battle. Of course, in some countries, women can’t even play sports, so it’s cultural, and different countries have different roles. 

“But overall, yeah, one day we will have total equality, but we’re not quite there yet.” DM

Gallery

Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • bigbad jon says:

    The pic of these two tennis players says more than a thousand words: Although Boris is 11 years younger than Martina he looks older. Says a lot about the life he led..

    • Kanu Sukha says:

      Maybe he did not have enough of the ‘makeup’ stuff on … like the agent orange stuff Trump daubs on his face every day, with albino eyes peering out ? BUT .. I do remember fondly (as a supporter of SACOS sport) how as a teenager with lots of chutzpah, he ‘took out’ our Kevin Curran (participating under some other nationality?) in the final of his first Wimbledon. Who can forget his memorable words after his loss in the final to Stich in 3 tie-breakers sets … “its just a tennis match !” His recent history notwithstanding, he will always be a person I respect. Martina … always a legend !

      • Bruce Watson says:

        Yep, Kevin was playing as an American by then, having been a (scholarship?) varsity tennis team champion at University of Texas at Austin.

  • Martin Engelbrecht says:

    “On the other hand, as we said before, tennis is a truly global sport. It doesn’t matter your religion and it doesn’t matter where you’re from. It’s just whether you’re good enough.”

    In some countries I dont think women would be allowed to play as the outfits would be offensive, as too much skin is explosed. The above statement is untrue.

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