While the Grand Prix Hassan II, only tournament in Africa on the ATP calendar, starts this week in Casablanca, we tried to establish a ranking of the 10 most memorable players in the history of this continent of 13,000 courts and 1.3 million regular players. A ranking where we could already add the young South African Kevin Anderson, only current player from the African continent ranked in the ATP top (29th position).
1. Wayne Ferreira (South Africa)
The most talented and the most consistent too with 56 consecutive appearances in Grand Slam tournaments. At a rate of 4 tournaments a year, that’s 14 years at the highest level! It was back in 1992, when South Africa abolished the last apartheid laws and came back to the international fold that this lanky 21 year-old finally arrived amongst the best players in tennis. Looking like an over-earnest bachelor, he was exceptional in making it all the way to the semi-final of the Australian Open, and secured for his wounded country at the Barcelona Olympics a silver medal in doubles, alongside his friend Piet Norval. Johnny Clegg likes this.
2. Younès El Aynaoui (Morocco)
The coolest. In a sometimes overly-sanitized tennis world, the profile of Younes El Aynaoui was really entertaining. In a style reminiscent of "Guga" Kuerten, the Moroccan established himself late on the world tour, earning his highest ranking - 14th place in the ATP - at the age of 31. Trained at the Bollettieri Tennis school in Florida, he gave a lot to tennis in his country, lifting the Davis Cup by BNP Paribas team of Morocco into the prestigious World Group for three years (2001, 2002, and 2004) with the two other musketeers Hicham "The Moroccan Magician" Arazi and Karim Alami. The two compatriots of El Aynaoui, having reached 22nd and 25th respectively in the world rankings in the early 2000s, could also have strong claims to a place in this Top 10.
3. Johan Kriek (South Africa)
The most successful. Ranked 7th in the world in 1984, winner of 14 ATP titles including two Grand Slams (Australia 1981 and 1982), losing finalist in 13 other finals and counting victories against the best players of the 80s, Connors, McEnroe, Borg, Agassi on his résumé... Johan Kriek has the most impressive prize list of any player from the African continent. A continent he had to flee in order to live his dream of being a professional tennis player at a time when his country, South Africa, was boycotted and isolated. A very dirty period.
4. Bob Hewitt (South Africa)
The most controversial. Originally from Australia but a naturalized South African in 1967 by his marriage, Bob Hewitt was a huge success in doubles, associated with his compatriot Frew McMillan, the two winning nine Grand Slam tournaments. But mentioning the career of Bob, as great as it was, raises some discomfort today. In 1974 first, he was part of the South African team for the Davis Cup by BNP Paribas which won in controversy, taking advantage of their opponent's withdrawal in the final. India had refused to participate in protest against the segregationist measures at the time. More recently, Hewitt again made the headlines when he was accused of sexual assault on minors while he was a coach. The International Tennis Hall of Fame has even decided to withdraw his ranking...
5. Kevin Curren (South Africa)
The most rebellious. Like his compatriot Johan Kriek, Kevin Curren had to leave his country, South Africa, very young in order to avoid the consequences of the boycott. This painful choice allowed him to compile a very respectable career, capturing five ATP titles and a fifth place ranking in the world in 1985. A naturalized U.S. citizen, he has not turned his back to his native country, becoming for a while captain for the Davis Cup by BNP Paribas team and remaining a keen observer of South African tennis, a tennis he ruminates on mercilessly. In an interview last September, he lashed out, with heavy weapons, at everyone: on the current players who aren't dedicated enough for his taste, on the former stars who have all left the ship, on the officials and the policies that kill investment in the yellow ball... Kevin is an angry man.
6. Byron Black (Zimbabwe)
The most aided. Solo, Byron Black was doing quite well racquet in hand, managing a 22nd place in the world in 1996. But it's in doubles, with his brother Wayne, that he had his greatest successes. In 1994, they won a landmark victory in a Grand Slam at Roland Garros. The Black brothers, from the white community in Zimbabwe, even managed to drag their country to the quarter-finals of the Davis Cup by BNP Paribas (0-5 against Italy in 1998). But Byron retired in 2002, Wayne four years later, and since Zimbabwe has not had another player of the same calibre since. Sad.
7. Cliff Drysdale (South Africa)
The most mediatized. Cliff Drysdale had two careers as a player, with a break between the two: in 1974, the year he decided not to answer the call of captain for the Davis Cup by BNP Paribas. A stand of consciousness for this charismatic player, who never hesitated to open his mouth in public, at a crucial time for professional tennis and when the ATP World Tour had just been created. The boycott of 1974 cost him a title in the Davis Cup by BNP Paribas, but allowed him to be highly respected in his country until today, even if he lives in the United States, where he has become a popular media consultant and very comfortable in front of the cameras.
8. Ismail El Shafei (Egypt)
The most surprising. Moustache, sharp eye and racquet in his left hand, the Egyptian Ismail El Shafei allowed his country to exist on the ATP tour for at least a few years. It was in 1974 that he especially stood out: first, by winning his only singles title in Manila, but also by giving the performance of his life at Wimbledon, where he eliminated Björn Borg in the third round, after the latter had just won the first of his 11 Grand Slam tournaments at Roland Garros a few weeks before. "The match was played on the court number one, one of the fastest,” he recalled recently. “At the time, Borg was not yet accustomed to this kind of surface, so I took advantage of it". The Swede would learn the lesson well, winning the tournament five times consecutively the following years.
9. Yahiya Doumbia (Senegal)
The more opportunistic. What a guy, this Yahiya Doumbia! His honest but banal career was marked by two strokes of unpredictable genius, obtained 7 years apart. In 1988 first, he managed the feat of winning the singles crown at the Open de Lyon, ranked 453rd in the world. An unprecedented feat at the time for a player ranked so low. Then in 1995, again in France, but this time in Bordeaux, he defeated Jakob Hlasek in the final to win his second title, having come through the qualifiers. Two finals on the ATP Tour, two victories: the Senegalese never made a trip for nothing.
10. Nduka Odizor (Nigeria)
The most patient. Today, the best Nigerian on the tour is called Sanni Adamu and peaks at the 1413th place in the world. Clearly, Nigeria doesn't really exist on the world map of tennis. It wasn't always so. In the 80s, Nduka Odizor proudly represented his country in doubles, as in singles, with to his credit two performances worthy of the "Guinness Book". In 1984 first, teamed with the American David Dowlen, he won the longest tie-break in the deciding set of a match in doubles: a 19-17 victory in the third against the Gullikson twins at the Boca Raton tournament. Then, solo, on the hallowed grass of Queen's in 1987, Odizor beat Guy Forget after a marathon match, ending 7-6, 4-6, 22-20, which is still the record for the greatest number of games played in a three-set match in. A record that John Isner doesn't hold.
By Régis Delanoë