JOHANNESBURG (AP) — The gold paint on the winners’ boards at the Ellis Park tennis stadium in Johannesburg sparkles with names of the greats: Rod Laver, Jimmy Connors, Margaret Court, Billie Jean King and many more. Yet an air of neglect cloaks the clubhouse, where dust coats the counter and booths in “The Tennis Bar,” its big window overlooking the old center court.
Ellis Park, once the temple of South African tennis, hosted celebrity-studded stops on the international circuit, despite intensifying global protests aimed at isolating the white minority rulers of the time. In 1974, Connors triumphed at the U.S. Open and then beat Arthur Ashe in a South African final for the second consecutive year.
Laver, who oversaw the coin toss before Rafael Nadal’s victory over Novak Djokovic in New York on Monday, won in Johannesburg in 1969 and 1970. Roy Emerson, whose record of 12 major singles wins was overtaken by Nadal at Flushing Meadow, also collected the South African trophy.
Now the 17-court complex at Ellis Park, whose namesake was a city councilor, hosts weekly junior squads and league matches, and an international wheelchair tournament. But it is often empty. Its decline mirrors the challenges that tennis faces in South Africa, a founding member of the International Lawn Tennis Federation in 1913 that struggled with racial segregation and international political pressure under apartheid, then saw attention and funding shift to other sports under democratic rule.
“She’s a very sad, old lady,” Keith Brebnor, a South African former tennis player and tournament director, said of dilapidated Ellis Park (though the hard courts were resurfaced two years ago).
The once-prestigious South African Open is now defunct, despite recent attempts to revive it. A complex named after Ashe in the Soweto area of Johannesburg hosts a lower-tier tournament for professionals. Venus and Serena Williams played an exhibition match at Ellis Park last year. Roger Federer, whose mother was born in South Africa, has visited the country to help children through his foundation. But soccer far exceeds the popularity of tennis, and rugby, cricket and golf, once the exclusive purview of whites, are also gaining crossover appeal in this country of more than 50 million.
Today, the Ellis Park facility is ringed by poor urban neighborhoods, fallout from the social transformation decades ago when apartheid crumbled and “whites-only” areas were dismantled, prompting blacks to move into the inner city. Crime increased, and there have been break-ins at the Ellis Park tennis complex over the years, though some longtime visitors say the neighborhood’s reputation is worse than the reality.
“A lot of people have always said to us, ‘This park is in the wrong part of town,’” said Wendy Addison, a manager with the provincial tennis association. She said she is continually arranging with plumbers and electricians to patch things up at the municipal complex, which she said still has a “wonderful vibe.”
The place used to be a quarry and a garbage dump. Tennis got started there in an era when women wore billowing skirts on court. The key to its later success, particularly when tennis was transitioning from amateur to professional status, was the involvement of South African Breweries and other big sponsors as well as the luring of celebrities such as actor Charlton Heston, who handed over a winner’s check in 1975.
African-American tennis star Arthur Ashe was a prominent opponent of apartheid but went to South Africa to see things for himself. He gave a tennis clinic in Soweto and had mixed success in seeking to ensure there was no segregated seating during his matches at Ellis Park, according to “Arthur Ashe: A Biography” by author Richard Steins.
Mark Mathabane was a young black player from Alexandra township who was mesmerized when he saw Ashe’s self-assurance — “not dropping his eyes, not groveling” — while talking to white journalists after training at Ellis Park.
Mathabane was helped by another American star, Stan Smith, to travel to the United States, where he played college tennis, escaping apartheid as well as possible reprisals from activists who saw him as a collaborator for participating in South African tournaments. He later wrote an autobiography about his journey called “Kaffir Boy,” using a derogatory term for blacks.
“Tennis was literally my passport to freedom,” he said, in a phone interview from his home in Portland, Oregon. “Ellis Park was a prominent and decisive place where I obtained the beginnings of that passport because if I hadn’t gone to Ellis Park, I probably wouldn’t be alive today.”
He visited Ellis Park last year for the first time in decades, remembering where he chatted about poetry with Guillermo Vilas, an avid writer as well as a champion from Argentina.
Today the world No. 21 Kevin Anderson is the top-ranked South African man in the world, and No. 75 Chanelle Scheepers is the top South African woman.
Black-and-white photographs at Ellis Park show international champions such as Pancho Gonzales and Don Budge, but also plenty of local talent. In an earlier generation, South African Frew McMillan won five doubles majors with former tennis hall of famer Bob Hewitt, who today faces charges in South Africa of sexual crimes against minors in cases dating back decades.
South Africa has a new champion, though. On Tuesday, President Jacob Zuma congratulated Lucas Sithole, who won a singles title in wheelchair tennis at the U.S. Open this weekend. In April, Sithole narrowly lost in a final at Ellis Park.
“We still consider it to be the home of tennis,” said Mike Dunk, a spokesman for the provincial tennis association. “We would like nothing better than to see tennis return there in all its glory.”