Tennis stars take in South Africa

6 February 2009

French-born tennis star Jo-Wilfried Tsonga left no doubt that African blood runs through his veins when he paid a visit to the sprawling township of Soweto outside Johannesburg on Wednesday.

Cypriot Marcos Baghdatis, also in Johannesburg for the South African Tennis Open, took time off to get a taste of what it would have felt like living under apartheid.

Tsonga, who lies seventh in the ATP world rankings and is in Johannesburg for the South African Tennis Open, held a coaching clinic at the Arthur Ashe Tennis Centre in White City, Jabavu.

At the end of the clinic, youngsters from Jabavu and neighbouring areas broke out in song in appreciation for Tsonga’s efforts, and moments later the broad-smiling Muhammad Ali look-alike tennis pro started dancing, even throwing in the odd Ali-shuffle in his routine.

African heritage

Tsonga, whose father was born in Pointe Noire, Congo, has always been proud of his African heritage, and prior to his arrival in Johannesburg had been at pains to make the point that he has long had an emotional attachment to the continent.

He was clearly at home among the children, many of whom did not know that he is one of the world’s top tennis players. And it seemed Tsonga’s enjoyment was at its greatest when he was putting the smallest toddlers through their paces with basic drills.

“As a kid I never had a chance to go to clinics which were conducted by the world’s top players,” Tsonga said. “It’s really great for them, although I think many of them do not know the players here.

‘They’ve got to be able to dream about it’

“But I would like them to go home and dream about becoming professional tennis players one day. They’ve got to be able to dream about it, because that could be the start of great things for them.”

Tsonga was accompanied by South African Davis Cup players Jeff Coetzee and Wesley Moodie, who worked with the older children on adjacent courts. The clinic was organised by the South African Tennis Association along with the ATP World Tour.

Baghdatis at the Apartheid Museum

Cypriot Marcos Baghdatis, meanwhile, took time off from the tennis to get a taste of how it felt living in the former apartheid South Africa.

Baghdatis, his coach Oliver Sounes and agent Jean-Phillipe Bernard were all labelled either “white” or “non-white” and required to enter Johannesburg’s Apartheid Museum through separate doorways.

“It’s weird, you know, knowing that they separated people for everything,” Baghdatis said. “They had different toilets, black people had toilets, white people had other toilets, but it was not only that, it was everything – beaches, houses, taxi queues, entrances, bus stops – and mainly the black people suffered a lot.

“I also watched some videos which showed how they were treated, and … it hurt a lot to see that,” said Baghdatis, clearly moved by the experience.

Understanding Mandela

The South African Tennis Open eighth seed was taken through a visual and physical explanation of the life of Nelson Mandala, after which he said: “I can understand now why he is a hero to so many people.”

Taking the museum’s “walk of freedom”, Baghdatis chose a series of coloured sticks – red for loyalty, white for courage, green for forgiveness – to represent characteristics of Mandela’s life as he saw it.

The tour finished with Baghdatis signing the museum’s visitor book – the same book Mandela signed when the museum opened in 2001.

“It’s a bit shocking when you’re in there and watching that,” Baghdatis said afterwards. “But it’s also nice to see because it is a small wakeup call – and it does wake you up, you see life a bit differently and people a bit differently.”

SAinfo reporter. Sources: South African Tennis Association and ATP World Tour