Resurgent South Africa eye Davis Cup elite

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Johannesburg:  South African Tennis Association chief executive Ian Smith is not given to hype.

So when the man widely credited with triggering the rebirth of the sport in the country utters words like "massive" and "huge", something truly big is on the horizon.

Starting Friday in the shadow of 2010 World Cup venue Ellis Park, South Africa face India in a Davis Cup World Group play-off that carries major significance for the tennis giants of Africa.

Victory in the three-day tie will lift South Africa into the elite section of international team tennis, raising the prospect of visits from superstars like Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic.

It would also bring the sport desperately sought media attention in a country where the national football, rugby union and cricket teams attract the big bucks and the rest scramble to survive off crumbs.

"I cannot stress enough how important this tie is for the country. After regaining our place on the ATP circuit through the 2009 South Africa Open, we now are one Davis Cup victory away from the world group," Smith told AFP.

"Just think of Federer, Nadal or Djokovic playing in South Africa. You cannot put a price on the impact that would have for the sport."

The association has received backing from the national and provincial governments and the national airline, and success against India would give former cricket administrator Smith extra clout as he woos additional sponsors.

Non-playing captain John-Laffnie de Jager recalled going to Ellis Park as a seven-year-old and battling to find space in a packed stadium watching a provincial championship final.

"Now the same event might attract 12 people, including the contestants and the umpires," said the man who inherited the Davis Cup squad when at its lowest ebb.

Victories over Finland, Denmark, Monaco, Macedonia and Belarus earned South Africa a crack at India on a medium-fast Ellis Park hardcourt surface before a hoped-for 4,000 crowd.

Smith confessed ticket sales are somewhat slower than a Federer serve, but is hoping the South African spectator tradition of never buying today what can be purchased tomorrow will prevail.

De Jager says team spirit more than anything has transformed Rik de Voest, Izak van der Merwe and doubles pair Jeff Coetzee and Wesley Moodie into a force capable of taking South Africa back among the elite after an 11-year absence.

The Indian quartet of Somdev Devvarman, Rohan Bopanna, Mahesh Bhupathi and Leander Paes have the edge when it comes to world rankings and De Jager concedes they must be favourites.

"But the altitude (1,800 metres) and the fast court being prepared will not suit our opponents and South Africa certainly have a chance with home advantage potentially crucial," he said.

Hype surrounding the tie is a far cry from 15 years ago when domestic tennis suffered a series of devastating blows with shambolic administration the root cause.

The South African Open did not survive the cull and was sold in 1995, while the 'super squad' system that delivered stars like Wayne Ferreira fell away.

"We realise the significance of this tie and how much it means to South African tennis. We must not forget the basics, however, and each player must contest one point at a time," stressed De Jager. 

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