SA needs world class tennis event, says Australian Open director

Cape Town - It conjures up the scary scenario after another awesome Australian Open, with a record 726 000 spectators and R500 million in prize money highlighting the tournament at Melbourne Park, that the gap with a phantom South African Open has seemingly continued to increase.

But the truth of the matter is that it is worse than that.

The one-time popular, acclaimed and prestigious South African Open no longer exists - and but for a brief, encouraging three-year reprieve at the Montecasino Entertainment Centre from 2010 to 2012, has either limped along for 30 years or not taken place at all.

And yet 40 years ago the situation between the two national tennis tournaments was to a great degree reversed, to the point where a vibrant South African Open at Doornfontein's Ellis Park Stadium in Johannesburg, master-minded under the astute direction of promoter Owen Williams, aroused such heady ambitions as usurping the Australian Open's Grand Slam status.  

Today, this very suggestion is almost laughable and fictional in nature - and, worse still, it is bathed in a bitter irony that influenced the situation.

A blueprint to revive South African tennis compiled by Durban-born Craig Tiley to restore the halcyon levels of the 1960s and 1970s was rejected as "too ambitious" and not financially viable by the South African Tennis Association in 2003.

The outcome was that Tiley, who as tournament director has been the driving influence behind the meteoric rise and success of the Australian Open for 11 years, stepped down from his position as South African Davis Cup captain and pursued his career in the United States initially and then Australia.

At the same time, the once-booming, but now discontinued South African Open is not going anywhere in spite of suggestions that TSA should run the event on a modest basis to maintain what should be an indelible tradition.

This week in correspondence from Melbourne, Tiley, who is now also CEO of Tennis Australia, gave unequivocal support to this approach, proclaiming "you've got to start somewhere."

"I am aware of the difficulties that exist, particularly in securing much-needed financial backing," he added, "but obstacles are there to overcome and its sad to see South African tennis, for which I still have a strong empathy, falling behind when the sport is booming internationally.  

"To start the process," said Tiley, who received his education at the Bryanston High School in Johannesburg, "it is imperative for South Africa to stage a world class event that attracts top players and interest around the globe."

"A successful, high-profiled event drives wider interest," says Tiley. "In this way the support will mushroom and grow.

"What is needed is government and private enterprise support," added Tiley,

"But the message must be brought home that the long-term benefits more than justify any investment, with the Australian Open benefiting the state of Victoria alone to an annual amount of R3 billion."