Coetzer driven by grand ambition

Simon O'Hagan studies the rise of a little South African big on fighting spirit
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The Independent Online
The powerful re-emergence of South Africa after long years of ostracism has been one of the dominant and most uplifting themes of sport in the 1990s. World champions at rugby, formidable opponents in cricket, making huge strides in football - the country that not so long ago was nowhere is now right where it matters.

But it's very much through team games - with all that they imply about national unity - that the new republic has defined itself. For South Africans in individual sports, the story is different. Paradoxically, they have to take second place to symbols of the collective cause - men like Francois Pienaar, Hansie Cronje, and Mark Fish.

"You can't really compete with the rugby boys," Amanda Coetzer said with a wry chuckle. She should know - she's South Africa's best woman tennis player. Their best woman player ever, in fact. Yet she ploughs a relatively lonely furrow in a sport that her noted compatriot, the former Wimbledon doubles champion Frew McMillan, says has long been under-rated in their homeland.

A lot needs to happen for that to change. But if Coetzer were to win a Grand Slam it would certainly be a start, and this year's French Open may just be the moment for her to make the big breakthrough that she has been hinting at for the last year.

Perhaps the most startling women's result of 1997 occurred three weeks ago in Berlin when Steffi Graf stepped on to the court for the quarter- finals of the German Open and in front of her own people got hammered 6-0 6-1 - the worst defeat of her 15-year professional career. The woman inflicting the damage was Coetzer, just as she had done against Graf in the Australian Open at the start of the year. Graf needed a third-set tie-break to beat Coetzer when they met again just before the French Open in Strasbourg, and if, as might well happen, they were to find themselves facing each other in the quarter-finals at Roland Garros, the odds on the South African ought to be about as short as she is.

At 5ft 2in, Coetzer is by some way the smallest of the leading women - defiant in the face of players who average out at a good six inches taller. Mere physique, however, has never counted for as much in the women's game as it has come to in the men's - Martina Hingis, for example, is 5ft 6in - and Coetzer has not allowed hers to hinder her progress to the point where now, at the age of 25, she reckons she is playing the best tennis of her life.

"I was always small," she said last week after a typically brisk and pugnacious dismissal of a German, Meike Babel, in the third round. "I've always had to find ways to compensate." Like increasing the size of her racket, which she did when she got a new coach, an Australian called Gavin Hopper, last year. Since then Coetzer has moved out of the ranks of the supporting cast to become a player whom everyone fears.

She followed her semi-final appearance at the 1996 Australian Open by reaching the quarter-finals of the US Open and the semis again in Australia five months ago. "I feel I can hurt people a bit more than I used to," she said.

McMillan sees Coetzer's success as the reward for persistence. "There's a saying we have which translates as 'the one who keeps on wins'," he said. "Amanda's a fighter, and sooner or later putting in that sort of time she was likely to do well." This year's French, McMillan reckons, gives her the best chance she has yet had to win a Grand Slam. Hingis's knee injury remains a potential problem for her, and neither Graf nor Monica Seles look the forces they once were.

"There is a chink she could slip through," McMillan said. "Solid as she is I wouldn't ever have considered her to have that little spark of genius, but again there are other qualities that are enormously important in the game, and which if you have them at the right time you may just take a major title. She's got immense tenacity but great dignity. I've never seen her in an ungracious state - which cannot be said of some other scrappers. She makes the most of what she's got, and I think that's high praise. If we can say that about every tennis player in the world we would really be complimenting them."

Whether Coetzer is Grand Slam-winning material is one question, the prospects for tennis in South Africa quite another. The age-old criticisms of the game in Britain - too white and middle-class - carry rather more meaning where Coetzer comes from. It is ironic that the money that was in the game during apartheid - when South Africa continued to host tournaments and the boycott issue somehow didn't apply to individuals - has now all but disappeared.

"There's been a change in the federation recently," McMillan said. "There's more of a drive to push the game forward and attract the sponsors' support that has been going to cricket and rugby." As for black tennis players from South Africa, that day still looks a little way off. Even if Coetzer, an Afrikaner, were to win a Grand Slam, it is questionable how much it would mean to the majority of South Africans. She is still doing her bit, though, having launched her own tennis programme in a couple of townships in her native Free State. It is a long game, but then so too is winning a Grand Slam - and Coetzer is nothing if not determined.