Let’s face it. Johannesburg looks doomed.
The ATP event I mean, not the city. Although the organisers are still hopeful it will take place next year, the “autocratic, and often obnoxious, ATP” have already removed it from their provisional 2012 calendar.
I don’t fancy its chances to be honest and the tour’s lone event in sub-Saharan Africa looks set to bite the dust, so to speak.
It never really had a chance.
First there’s its place in the calendar. The week after a slam is never likely to attract the most illustrious field and when you factor in the distance from other events and the altitude, which makes conditions there completely unique, you don’t exactly have a recipe for success.
The way the 2011 tournament has panned out hasn’t helped its cause either. Feliciano Lopez and Yen Hsun Lu must be one of the weakest top seeded duos in ATP history and even they didn’t stick around too long.
I’m sure you’ve heard the stat by now: After just one round there wasn’t a single previous ATP title winner left in the draw. Not one of the 16 who made it through their openers made my pre-season list of 10 potential first title winners.
In fact the list would probably have been thirty names long before one of them made the grade.
Well, so what. That’s what has made the tournament so fascinating.
It reminds me a lot of the Hamburg Masters in 2006. Played in the week after Rome, the tournament was sans Federer and Nadal who both withdrew after their five-hour epic in the Italian capital.
When Juan Carlos Ferrero fell to David Ferrer in the last 16, there wasn’t a single Masters winner left in the field and it was clear that most would never get a better chance again.
It was Tommy Robredo who seized the opportunity then. He saved seven set points in the first set of his quarter-final against Ferrer and didn’t drop another set in the tournament afterwards.
Predictably he has never come close to another Masters title and of the last eight in Hamburg, only Nikolay Davydenko has since gone on to break his duck at that level.
As it was in Hamburg, the pressure in Jo-Burg is high and the player with the toughest mind is the one likely to come out on top.
The fact that it has been a unique opportunity for some many of those involved from the second round onwards is exactly what has made it so interesting.
The much maligned field isn’t as bad as it has been portrayed either.
Kevin Anderson has a huge game and has already reached an ATP final before (lost to Sam Querrey in Vegas , 2008). He will enter the top 50 on Monday and if he can take the title here he has a good chance of reaching another level in his game.
His semi-final opponent, Adrian Mannarino, is another interesting player and although he may be regarded as Challenger level right now, in a few years time Johannesburg 2011 may be viewed as as the event where a talented top 20 player came of age.
Somdev Devvarman is probably the purest pusher in men’s tennis today but he has displayed his mental fortitude in high pressure situations in the past.
In 2007 he upset John Isner in a deciding tiebreak in the final of the NCAA Championships and last year he told gold medals in both the Commonwealth and Asian games.
In the latter he smoked Denis Istomin 2 and 1 in the final so although his best career moments have come far away from the tennis mainstream, he has a certain pedigree.
The only player who looks completely out of his depth at this level, on paper at least, is Izak Van der Merwe but then it’s nothing unusual for a local player to hit a rich vein of form and go deep in a small ATP tournament.
See for example Devvarman, a runner-up in Chennai in 2009, and Chris Guccione who has made finals in both Sydney and Adelaide. See also Moscow and St Petersburg pretty much every year.
Would people really find it more interesting if a couple of reasonably prolific 250 winners were left in the draw? Would the presence of a Cilic, a Simon or a Robredo render it that much more exciting?
Not for me. There won’t be another tournament like Johannesburg all year and the way it’s looking, this could be the last ever edition of the event.
And if it does disappear, those of you thinking “fuck it, good riddance” would do well to see the bigger picture.
I’ll leave the final word to Sy Lerman of the Mail and Guardian.
The absence of a fully fledged South African Open next year would not only be a major blow to the event itself but might also deal a body blow to the future of not only South African tennis but the development of the sport in Africa as a whole.
And when the ATP deals sympathetically with the desires and whims of its well-rewarded and generally pampered players, it might well give a thought to its responsibilities in furthering the greater interests of the sport.