The other Kevin: childhood tennis memories from the apartheid era

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Kevin Anderson celebrates reaching the US Open final

When Kevin Anderson surprised everyone and made it all the way to the US Open final – where he was naturally summarily thrashed by Rafael Nadal – it reminded me of a sporting moment, surely deeply etched in the memories of many fellow South Africans (where ever they may live) when Kevin Curren beat both Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe to reach the 1985 Wimbledon final during the dark days of apartheid.

Like Anderson, Curren was playing the tournament of his life, sending down aces at will and demolishing everyone on his path to the final. Such was his form that he beat Connors and McEnroe in straight sets.

But unlike Anderson, who no one really gave a snowball’s chance of beating the great Spaniard Nadal, Curren was expected to prove to experienced for the raw talent that was Boris “Boom Boom” Becker, a 17-year-old, unseeded, copper top German who had stunned the tennis world by just making the final.

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Kevin Curran in the 1985 final

I remember sitting in our lounge in our Germiston family home in the old Transvaal surrounded by uncles, aunts and cousins watching and hoping the gangly Curren would do the isolated nation proud by winning the biggest title in tennis.

Sadly it was not to  be: Becker, riding on a wave of teenage punk energy, powered his way to a four set win over a shell-shocked Curren, who couldn’t bring his A game to hallowed centre court of Wimbledon.

I can still see my 12-year-old self sitting on the brown and gold patterned sofas my parents held on to for ages, hoping that mild-tempered Kevin Curren could fight his way back against tennis new wunderkind.  (There is a photo somewhere of all the family, uncles and cousins crammed into the lounge watching the final in what became a Sunday afternoon ritual in the 1980s).

I am not sure if I even realised it at the time that Curren had become an American citizen but to us, he was a South African hero.

Having young kids and been stuck in a different timezone meant I never watched any of this year’s US Open – apart from some highlight packages – but I was still excited to hear that Anderson, who bears some similarities to Curren with his skinny, long-boned physique and a killer serve – had made it all the way to a Grand Slam final. (The last player to get even close was the super talented, but poorly tempered Wayne Ferreira who made the semi-finals of the Australian Open twice).

By contrast I was addicted to the television screen during the two weeks of Wimbledon every July, and more so that year as Curren surged on.

It was one of the few global sporting events where South Africans could still compete against the best in the world. By contrast cricket and rugby union, my two other passions, were strictly domestic affairs, peppered by the ‘rebel tours’ as we remained banished until the early 1990s.

Wimbledon was also was also one of the few international events we got live on our TVs for some reason (there was no Olympics or World Cup coverage). The commentary was provided every year by tennis greats Bob Hewitt (who was much later shockingly convicted of rape) and his doubles partner Frew McMillan (I think).

I remember in the cold July afternoons taking breaks from school studies to watch just one game, just one more point in the tennis and ending up staying in the living room for hours. In the end it was 5pm and I’d watched the whole match and done no school work at all.

Thinking back in the hazy past, watching Kevin Curran play in the 1985 Wimbledon final is among a host of sporting moments I remember vividly from my apartheid-era childhood.

The others were of course Gerrie Coetzee knocking out Michael Dokes to become world heavyweight boxing champion (“We have a new, heavyweight champion of the world” I can still remember the TV announcer calling out), listening on the radio when tiny Zola Budd got horribly entangled with Mary Decker in the 3000 metre race at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics (where she ran barefoot as a hastily ordained Brit and finished 7th), my beloved Transvaal rugby team losing numerous Currie Cup finals and numerous cricket memories, not least of which was the great, late Clive Rice yorking successive Australian batsman in a 1980s Kim Hughes rebel series and in the early 1990s Jonty Rhodes managing to hit 7 off the last bowl in a domestic Day-Night game between Transvaal and Natal, when Richard Snell bowled a chest high no ball.

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Gerrie Coetzee knocking out Michael Dokes

Surprisingly though, despite the heartbreak of Kevin Curran’s defeat, I became a huge fan of Boris Becker and can equally remember the three successive finals he played against the great Swedish maestro Stefan Edberg, one of tennis’s great rivalries – with Edberg winning two of them in 1988 and 1990 and Becker triumphing in 1989.

I’ll end on a nice bit of trivia.

In writing this blog, I came across an interview with Kevin Curren on The Guardian website, where it transpires that he went to a Bruce Springsteen concert in London the night before the final, so confident was he of winning!

“You may laugh but it was unbelievable,” said Curren, who said he was not much of a concert goer, but that Springsteen was “the man right then.”

Perhaps a better night’s sleep and my childhood sporting memories would have been a lot more rosier.

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Federer, Nadal, Becker and Curren: remembering my tennis moments

tennis-ballsIt wasn’t the classic match I’d been hoping for, but it was still a thrill to sit under the lights at Rod Laver arena and watch two of the modern-day greats, Roger Federer and Raphael Nadal, duel it out for a place in the Australian Open final.

Nadal was too aggressive , Federer made too many errors at the net with only the occasional glimpses of his sublime ground strokes, and it was all over in straight sets.

As I sat in the arena with Danni Minogue behind me, Pete Sampras chatting away in the distance (and never applauding a single point) and the great man, Rod Laver himself, watching intently with his distinctive mop of red hair and pointy nose, I thought about my own relationship with tennis and the role it’s played in my life.

Growing up in Germiston, a mining town about 30 minutes east of Johannesburg, we lived across the road from a Catholic convent and next door to the school’s tennis court. The nuns graciously gave us a set of keys and it was quite a novelty to have friends over and then head down to the courts to hit the ball around.  The court’s were cracked and the nets frayed and we frequently lost balls into the neighbouring homes, but it was our own private tennis club.

I was never much of a player, occasionally I’d string a couple of good shots together and fluke a serve down the line, but I’d have been a lower grade club player at best if I’d had lessons and practiced. Still, there probably wasn’t a family holiday, where we didn’t take our rackets and have a game. I recall being rather competitive and not averse to smashing my racket against the ground and not always the best loser.

More so though, my relationship with tennis revolved around the four majors – the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon and the US Open, which seemed to define the calendar year and the seasons.

South Africa might have been isolated from the world in the mid-1980s, but every game was shown on SABC (the South African Broadcasting Corporation) with our legendary doubles champion Bob Hewitt waxing on in English about this shot and that and someone else providing the alternate Afrikaans commentary.

The French Open and Wimbledon were always my favourites – the former played on those bright red clay courts, with smartly dressed men and sexy, haughty European women in sunglasses watching from the stands (expertly picked out by the cameramen) while the umpire called the points in French.

They was probably the only words in French I knew:

“Zero – quarante” (Love – 40)

“Jeu” (Game”)

“Quarante – trente” (40-30)

And my favourite, the oh so very sophisticated:

“Egalite” (Deuce)

I loved all the sliding across the red clay, the ability to see exactly where the ball landed in the court when a dispute was called and the long baseline rallies by the likes of Mats Wilander, Sergi Bruguera, Thomas Muster and the tiny, plucky Michael Chang and his famous win over Stefan Edberg in 1989 (where I seem to remember a point he served underhand).

But Wimbledon holds the strongest memories for me.

It was always played in the middle of winter in South Africa, crisp, days when the afternoon sun streamed in through the sliding doors of the living room and always while I was studying for mid-year exams. I remember I’d structure my study time  – 40 minutes at my desk, then 20 minutes of tennis, which soon turned into 30 minutes and sometimes until my mother called the family over for dinner.

The men’s final evokes strong memories of family gatherings. Uncles and aunts and cousins would arrive for tea, cake and biscuits and then we’d all retire to the family room to watch the final. My father would invariably fall asleep (I have photographic evidence somewhere) but wake up in time for the trophy presentation by Duke of Edinburgh.

One year was particularly special – 1985. I was 12 years old and a South African had made it all the way to the final. His name was Kevin Curren. He was tall, awkward looking, softly spoken guy who blitzed the likes of McEnroe and Connors with an endless stream of aces and unplayable serves to power his way into the final against an unknown, unseeded 17-year-old German “wunderkid” called Boris Becker.

This was in the deep, dark days of apartheid isolation with only the likes of Gary Player and a few other individual sportsman able to still represent our country on the global stage.

The nation held its breath that day as we prayed that our new sporting idol, Kevin Curren, would play one more storming match and give us our first Grand Slam champ since Johan Kriek won the Australian Open in the late 1970s.

Sadly it was not to be. The fresh-faced, precious talent that was Boris Becker leaped onto the world stage on the hallowed grass of Wimbledon and tennis was changed for ever. It was upsetting to see our hero lose, but the truth is I became an enormous fan of Boris Becker with all his theatrical dives at the net and that powerful, trigger serve of his.

In the subsequent years, I remember the three Wimbledon Finals between the raging, tear away Boom Boom Becker and the cool elegant Swede, Stephen Edberg between 1988 and 1990 as among the most thrilling of my young adult life.

Later, while living in London, I was lucky enough to attend Wimbledon a couple of times, taking the train after work, queueing up for five-pound tickets and wander around the famous courts, indulging in some rather disappointing strawberries and cream and sitting on what was then called “Henman Hill” (now called Murray Mound) in the long summer days.

In 2004, I slept over at a mate’s house in Croydon  and we awoke at 4am to queue early for tickets for one of the show courts.

We got to watch a young very attractive talent by the name of Maria Sharapova on her way to her first Grand Slam, but the highlight was watching the panther like Roger Federer on his way to his second of seven Wimbledon Crowns.

And this week I got to see him again  in the twilight of perhaps the greatest of tennis careers.

To inappropriately quote Eric Clapton and Cream: Anyone for tennis, wouldn’t that be nice?