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New tennis era dawns

Sports Reporter

THE Blacks were not there this time but there were some blacks in the Israeli town of Ramat Hasharon at the weekend as Zimbabwe finally got a glimpse of life without its celebrated tennis brothers.

After years of riding on the most famous brothers in Davis Cup – Byron and Wayne Black – Zimbabwe sent out a quartet of rookies in their clash against Israel as reality finally caught up with domestic tennis.

Genius Chidzikwe and Gwinyai Tongoona stepped into the shoes that used to be worn by Byron and Wayne in the Euro/African Zone Group One relegation play-off against Israel.

It was only the second meeting between the two countries in Davis Cup in almost 40 years with the then Rhodesian team crushing Israel 4-1 in the other meeting at this level in 1964.

Four decades is a long time and when they met again at the weekend the Zimbabwe team had an outlook that was consistent with the composition of the country’s population.

Israel might have got their revenge, 39 years later, with a whitewash 5-0 defeat of Zimbabwe but this was one landmark Davis Cup tie where the performance was more important than the result.

For the first time in Zimbabwe’s Davis Cup history, the country had fielded an all-black side in a sporting discipline that had been dominated by the all-white of the all-Black era in recent times.

Retired local superstar Byron stayed at home while his younger brother Wayne was believed to be somewhere in Kazakhstan tying up his marriage.

Kevin Ullyett, the third player in the pecking order, chose not to take part in the tie against Israel.

End of an era?

Maybe yes, maybe no — it just depends which side of the coin one is looking at.

Tennis has had its time in the sun and anyone who does not appreciate the contribution of the Black brothers to that is either a stinking racist or a downright lunatic who needs to visit a psychiatrist.

Byron and Wayne took Zimbabwe to a level in this game where it was mentioned in the same breadth as the giants of Davis Cup – Australia, the United States, Sweden and France.

Their victory over Australia in Mildura remains one of the biggest achievements in the history of Zimbabwean sport.

Their battle against the United States at the City Sports Centre in January 2000 remains one of the major highlights in the history of Zimbabwean sport.

A brotherhood that brought the likes of global icons like Andre Agassi and Patrick Rafter to Harare can never be forgotten and their place at the top table of Zimbabwe’s sporting legends is guaranteed. But everything comes to an end one day.

On Friday, Gwinyai Tongoona faced Noam Okon in a match that confirmed that these were changing times in the little world of tennis in Zimbabwe.

For long considered as fringe players who were always called up to make the numbers and play in dead rubbers, the black players in Zimbabwe’s Davis Cup team were finally right in the spotlight.

No one gave them a chance to win for this was just the start of a lengthy learning process.

The focus, instead, was on how they would handle the pressure, how they will fight, did they have the spirit to give it their best and would they just crumble, like a deck of cards, and be humiliated?

Tongoona lost the first match but he was by no means humiliated as he went down fighting – 4-6, 3-6, 4-6.

Neither was Genius Chidzikwe humiliated, too, in the second match as he went down 2-6, 4-6, 4-6 to Harel Levy.

There might have been some jitters in the first set but he bravely came back in the last two sets and although Zimbabwe were down 0-2 on the first day they had shown they could play the game.

Chidzikwe and Tongoona took their fighting spirit into the doubles on Saturday, combing forces to stretch the fresh pair of Jonathan Erlich and Andy Ram before losing 5-7, 4-6, 4-6 and with it the tie.

With the reverse singles now dead rubbers the Zimbabweans threw the two other members of the team — Gwinyai Chingoka and Zibusiso Ncube — into the fray while Israel retained their number one Okon and replaced Levy with Erlich.

Ncube in fact surprised Okon as he even had the temerity to take the second set into a tie-break before going down 4-6, 6-7 (3-7).

Chingoka, the youngest member of the team, was blown away in the second set and lost his match against Erlich 4-6, 0-6 on Sunday.

It was a baptism of fire but one that this team badly needed as they begin to adjust to life in the heat of the battle.

Of course Wayne will be back and Ullyett, too, will also bounce back into the team to take his place either as the number two player or the doubles specialist that he is.

But the future does not lie with either Wayne or Ullyett. It lies with the likes of Gwinyai Chingoka and Zibusiso Ncube and, if the events in Israel this weekend gave us a true insight of what the future holds for us in this game, then it will not be a terrible time.

Qualifying for the World Group, of course, will be tough if not impossible with this crop of players but neither will we slump to such levels where we will end up playing Zambia or Botswana where we used to play the US or Australia.

We will still retain some pride and, as much as such heavy defeats like the one we suffered in Israel hurt, it is the only way for the learning process of our young players in their bid to make this team a force to reckon with again.

And, to be fair to them, the Zimbabwe Davis Cup team was already in steady decline as the powers of such key players like Byron began to wane.

Sooner or later Tennis Zimbabwe was going to be forced to act.

TZ president, Paul Chingoka, who seemingly has dedicated his life to the success of Zimbabwe in Davis Cup, knows that these are trying times for his beloved sport and would have loved to have either Wayne or Ullyett in Israel at the weekend.

Such a scenario would have meant a smoother transition, with an old experienced hand overseeing the transition, instead of throwing the young players into the fray at once.

He will hope that the expected return of Wayne and Kelvin will help this young crop in their bid to settle into the big time now that they know they are no longer fringe players.

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Thanks for posting this article, Ace Tracker. I understood the overall thesis of the piece as it pertained to positioning the team to be viable with it's "second string", inexperienced players. But, the article also said that some of the "old guard" would be available for future ties. So, that leads me to ask what was the point of this article if the experienced players will return? It's encouraging that this particular team was able to fight valiantly. But, they still lost 5-0 against Israel. Also, this performance does not give any indication as to how the same team would fair against some other country or a different set of players from Israel. I did catch a hint of social commentary as to the racial make up of the team. But, I don't think that line of thought was fully developed. It was a fine report about this particular tie and the effect of the absence of the Blacks and Ullyett. But, it seems that when one of the Blacks and Ullyett return the inexperienced players will be relegated to the bench and the team will still lack continuity. The team's ability to qualify in the future is questionable.

2,204 Posts
At the end of the doubles rubber, someone i know came down to the court, & spoke with the Zimbabwean players. He wanted to remember this tie somehow, so he asked one of the players to give him his head-band. The player (i don't exactly remember which of them) said that he can't, because he only has one, & he has no money to buy another. So you see, it's very hard financialy as well for these guys.
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