Tennis: Firebrands, flour bombs and Frew

John Roberts meets a veteran of South Africa's last Davis Cup tie in Britain during the apartheid era
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The Independent Online
TRIVIA QUESTION: who was the last Briton to have his name engraved on the Davis Cup?

No, it was not Fred Perry or Bunny Austin. It was Claude Lister, from Enfield.

Lister was South Africa's long-serving captain and led them in 1974, when the Springboks became the first country outside the "Big Four" (the United States, Britain, France and Australia) to win the trophy, and the only nation ever to win without playing a final.

India refused to play South Africa because of apartheid, a decision commended by millions who considered that the South Africans should not have been allowed back into the Davis Cup, having been expelled a few years before.

South Africa's sportsmen were accustomed to vilification and rejection by the international community. In 1969, the last time they played a Davis Cup tie against Britain prior to this weekend's World Group relegation match in Birmingham, the South African team were greeted by the flour bombs of Peter Hain-led anti-apartheid demonstrators in Bristol.

"Some people say the demonstration might have affected us, but it didn't," recalled Frew McMillan, a Bristol resident, who partnered Bob Hewitt in the decisive doubles rubber, won by Britain's Mark Cox and Peter Curtis, 9-7 in the fifth set.

"It was the only doubles match that Bob Hewitt and I ever lost, and, frankly, I let the team down. We were a set and a break up and winning comfortably, and suddenly my game went to pieces. And it's in my back yard, virtually, so every time I go past the Redlands Club - I've refused to be a member of it! - I have this awful memory. I can see not only the ink bombs and the flour bombs, but I can see Curtis and Cox passing me as well, and playing everything on me, because I was the dunce in the corner."

McMillan did not wear a tall, pointed hat. He sported a natty white cap, which served to emphasise his gentlemanly manner, in contrast to the bad- tempered Hewitt, who once managed to provoke Roger Taylor so much that the Yorkshireman chinned him in the dressing-room.

"People who listen to Hewitt's commentaries now on Eurosport would find it hard to equate him with the firebrand player," McMillan said. "And he's very critical of people who blow their top on court. But then, so's McEnroe. It's really a case of the pot calling the kettle black.

"Hewitt was fiery, but still a wonderful competitor. We had one match during our Davis Cup career when we were playing the Indians, and during the course of the doubles Hewitt actually broke his ankle. He got caught up in the tarpaulin at the side of the court. It was a very severe break, but he finished the match. It only confirms what I've always maintained, that I carried him for much of our matches anyway."

McMillan, known now for his lyrical television commentaries, smiles when reminiscing about the Australian-born Hewitt. "We are very different. I can get the needle, I can get angry, but I don't have the explosiveness that Hewitt had. And I think that was necessary. He played with [Fred] Stolle before me, and Fiery Fred was called Fiery Fred because he was just the opposite.

"Hewitt went from Fiery Fred to Fiery Frew. I think I was a bit of a foil for him and soaked up a lot of his nervous energy. But both Stolle and I ensured that we stuck with him, because he was a phenomenal player, one of the great right-court doubles players of all time, without a doubt."

The Hewitt-McMillan partnership underpinned South Africa's advance to the final in 1974. There was no African zone, and politics precluded the Springboks from competing in the European zone. So they were dispatched to Latin America, and defeated Brazil, Ecuador, Chile and Colombia without losing a rubber.

India qualified for the final after defeating Australia in Calcutta and the Soviet Union in Poona. The Indian Tennis Association drew the line at South Africa, however, just as Claude Lister and his players were looking forward to realising a moment of triumph in Johannesburg.

"The Davis Cup was eventually delivered to South Africa, and we had a presentation at Ellis Park, Johannesburg," McMillan recalled. "In our own minds, we were firm favourites to win the final, even though India had the Amritraj brothers [Anand and Vijay] in their team. Johannesburg is up at 6,000ft, a tremendous local advantage, and our players were fit and well. Consequently, it was a slightly hollow victory but, nevertheless, a victory that we thought we deserved anyway. But the Indians will no doubt dispute that."

McMillan, who still has a base in South Africa, has developed strong British links. "In my work, it's a great benefit that Tim Henman, particularly, and Greg Rusedski, as an import, are pushing to the forefront, because there's that much more reception in Great Britain as a result.

"My wife [Sally] is involved in the world of horses down in the West Country, and it's amazing how many of her young riders are interested in tennis directly as a result of Henman and Rusedski."