With eyes on Melbourne, Anderson and Harris light up Soweto
Cape Town - While the sporting world was on Sunday focused on an epic Australian Open men's singles final in which Novak Djokovic gained a momentous 17th Grand Slam singles title by shading the burgeoning and exciting Dominic Thiem 6-4, 4-6, 2-6, 6-3, 6-4 in four captivating hours in front of a capacity 15 000 crowd at the Rod Laver Stadium, South Africa's two top players, Kevin Anderson and Lloyd Harris, lit up tennis in Soweto while heading the country's "Rising Stars" junior development initiative with an exhibition encounter.
Under the circumstances, it was surprising that close to a couple of thousand, many of whom were making their first tentative entry into Soweto, were prepared to pay the R150 admission into the Arthur Ashe Tennis Centre to enthusiastically witness the two-time world Grand Slam finalist, and currently 120th-ranked Anderson beat a strikingly improved 22-year-old, 85th-ranked Harris 6-3, 3-6, 11-9 via a deciding 10-point tiebreaker.
It was not the ideal time for the one-time world fifth-ranked Anderson to make his first official appearance on a South African court in nine years - or Harris as well for that matter - in view of the intriguing international contest that was gripping all and sundry in Melbourne.
Indeed, February 2 for the Anderson-Harris exhibition was always a curious time. Just imagine had the unlikely scenario emerged whereby one of the South Africans reached the Australian Open final.
Nonetheless, the Soweto initiative was another example that the controlling Tennis South Africa organisation is making a game attempt to restore the prowess of the sport in the country to past heights, with 370 schools initially participating in the "Rising Stars" programme - and ambitious hopes of the number increasing to 700 the next time around.
There is also an ATP Challenger tournament due to be introduced into South Africa this year, even if it is one in the most modest of four categories, with Jeff Coetzee's appointment as TSA's part-time Director of Tennis another move in the right direction.
South Africa also qualified for the first time in more than two decades for an international team event at the recent inaugural 24-nation ATP Cup in Australia and performed creditably despite failing to reach the quarter-final stage.
Anderson, returning to tennis after a 2019 season plagued by injury, was in the South African team along with Harris and the redoubtable 11th-ranked doubles exponent, Raven Klaasen, partnered by Ruan Roelofse.
But unless Anderson or Harris improve in the world rankings - a requirement for the ATP Cup - South Africa might not gain qualification next year.
Also, it would be further encouraging if Anderson makes himself available for Davis Cup competition this year after declining to do so for the past nine years.
And the restoration of a South African Open, once regarded as one of the leading tournaments on the world circuit, would also be a major sign that TSA mean business.