Tasked with leading the struggling national team as they aim to lift their lowly international status, new Davis Cup captain Marcos Ondruska believes the answer to SA’s tennis woes could lie in his young squad.
Ondruska, a former world No 27 who represented South Africa at the 1996 Olympics, was part of the Super Squad formed in the early ’90s to support the nation’s top players.
The squad included the likes of Wayne Ferreira and Pietie Norval, who earned silver in the men’s doubles at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, with three members of the group reaching the top 60 in the world singles rankings.
Two decades later, with only two SA men – Kevin Anderson and Tucker Vorster – ranked among the top 300 in the world, Ondruska believes a similar squad-based approach with enough support from Tennis SA (TSA) could have far-reaching results for the embattled sport.
“There are no guarantees. Everyone in the Super Squad worked hard. We were smart and bright, and we were all willing to adapt and fight,” Ondruska said this week, ahead of his first tie in charge of the SA Davis Cup squad.
“But the guys in the current team are very good and talented, and I think it will be a big boost to tennis in South Africa, and tennis in general, if they do well.
“It will bring more attention and more grassroots players to the sport because it looks more attractive if you’ve got five guys in the top 100.”
Based in the United States, where he works as an academy coach, Ondruska plans to hold regular international camps for the SA squad, providing similar structures for the players to those he enjoyed during his career.
The 43-year-old, who played 12 Davis Cup ties for the SA team between 1993 and 2001, hopes this approach will not only strengthen his young squad, in the absence of top national players Anderson and Raven Klaasen who remain focussed on the ATP Tour, but will ultimately filter through every level of the sport.
While TSA is focussed on increasing the number of Futures Tour events on the domestic calendar for players to gain experience and earn Tour points at home, Ondruska feels this is only one step on the journey of recovery.
The federation will also need to invest in the country’s rising stars on the international circuit, by providing financial support for the likes of promising teenager Lloyd Harris who made his Davis Cup debut against Luxembourg in Centurion on Friday.
“Futures tournaments will help as it will get the guys playing a lot more, from the ages of 16 through to 30, or even older,” Ondruska said.
“That will create a better level of player for younger players to learn from and hone their skills. “But it’s not the be all and end all. Eventually, somewhere along the line, these guys need to be put out into the real world to test their skills.”
After a turbulent team environment was revealed when former SA Davis Cup captain John-Laffnie de Jager stepped down a couple of years ago, having clashed with the TSA board, Ondruska felt administrators had stabilised the conflict with players and the foundation had been laid in order to move forward.
“I think the relationship with Tennis SA and the players has definitely improved. I can see that.
“Things are changing. The players are more accepting and confident of TSA, so that’s a great start.
“I’ve spoken to [TSA president] Gavin Crookes and there are a lot of initiatives underway to help tennis in general in South Africa, so they’re trying hard on their side, but the issue is time. “Things need to happen for Lloyd quickly because he’s on the cusp of making that breakthrough – or not. These are the critical years for him.”
More than anything, Ondruska hopes he will have a positive influence on the young Davis Cup team, as they prepare to claw their way out of the Euro-Africa Group 2 division.
By doing that, and playing a key role in top-flight development, he believes SA tennis can take a step forward.
“The Davis Cup was a huge part of my career and I loved being part of the team environment,” he said. “I want younger players to have the same positive experiences I had.”