Tennis: Wesley set to join Tim and Greg Show

Ronald Atkin meets the South African with a Davis Cup dream
Click to follow
The Independent Online
BRITAIN IS poised to land the extra player the country so urgently needs for its Davis Cup squad. Like Greg Rusedski and the doubles specialist Neil Broad, he is imported and ready-made - the South African 20-year- old Wesley Whitehouse who was junior Wimbledon champion in 1997.

Whitehouse, also junior runner-up at the Australian and US Opens two years ago, has applied to the International Tennis Federation for a change of playing status from South African to British. Once that formality is rubber-stamped, he will be warmly embraced by the Lawn Tennis Association and his career, stagnating because of a lack of opportunity and backing, should move into fast-forward again.

Neil Whitehouse, Wesley's father and manager, said the reasons for his son's intention to leave his homeland were threefold: the furtherance of his career, racism and violence in South Africa. Speaking from the family home in Pretoria, Mr Whitehouse, 57, said: "The whole family wants to move because we are of British descent. Wesley's great grandparents, on my side, were from Scotland and Manchester, which gives us the ability to apply for a passport.

"I have spoken to Tennis South Africa and they agree it is the best move Wesley could make. There are no top tournaments here, so there is nothing to entice sponsors to be interested in him, and he needs sponsors to keep on a full-time coach and get to the top." Mr Whitehouse, who last week sold his printing business, said he, his wife Shirley and daughter Kim would follow Wesley to Britain as soon as possible.

"But we want to get him settled first because it is his career we are looking at, not ours. The way things have become now in South Africa you have to be a black player. It is about colour now, not ability, which is very prohibiting. I feel that if they aren't taking a guy on his ability, then there is no place for us any longer. Also, law and order is out of control. Just last Sunday a friend of mine was shot in the head and killed outside his house. People close to you are being hijacked, shot and robbed or raped. It is total chaos as far as we are concerned."

Wesley has been called a traitor in the South African media and there were accusations that the LTA enticed him to move. "That is totally untrue," his father insisted. "I approached the LTA and they offered us nothing, except to welcome Wesley and tell us we had to make an application, which we have done, and they have sent it to the ITF. We are waiting for his release to come through this week. Wesley will get a work permit immediately he gets a letter from the LTA."

What lent urgency to the Whitehouse family's decision was the Davis Cup tie at Birmingham in September between Britain and South Africa, with the loser doomed to relegation from the World Group. Since the South African No 1, Wayne Ferreira, has already declared himself unavailable because of impending fatherhood, Whitehouse would certainly have been drafted into his country's squad for that match.

"If I were selected for the Davis Cup team I would turn it down," said Wesley, who is playing in the Bristol challenger tournament. "With things the way they are in South Africa, with all the killings and stuff like that, I need to get out of the country. To be able to play here, to play for Britain, would offer me opportunities to further my career. I was going to move to London anyway and base myself there like so many players do."

The left-handed Whitehouse is certainly an imposing presence, well over 6ft and with the rugged contours of a brick outhouse. He has not yet been higher in the world rankings than 260, and at the moment is 330, but with the imminent retirement of Chris Wilkinson and Danny Sapsford, Britain's best after Tim Henman and Rusedski, a gap has opened up which the Davis Cup captain David Lloyd needs to fill.

There was irony in the fact that Whitehouse should be beaten at Bristol on Thursday by Wilkinson, the player who objected to Rusedski's immediate incorporation in Britain's Davis Cup squad when he turned his back on Canada in 1995. "Wilkinson should have been happy that Britain was getting another good player," said Whitehouse. "Sure, I would be proud to represent Britain in the Davis Cup. It would be an honour and a privilege."

One thing Whitehouse will need to change is the South African national colours on his racket, and one thing he will certainly need to tone down is an explosive temperament. The racket was thrown and booted, balls were slammed and Whitehouse loudly berated his own shortcomings ("Come on mate, 55 chances, Jesus") during his defeat by Wilkinson. Whitehouse later explained quietly that he was tired, having been constantly on the road since April in search of ranking points at Challenger tournaments.

After this week's event in Manchester, Whitehouse will go back to Pretoria for a fortnight's break, then hopes to return to London permanently. "I just want to get my career up and going, to give my tennis the best chance. I hope the LTA will want me to play for them. That would be great."

Richard Lewis, the LTA's director of international and professional tennis, who introduced himself to Whitehouse at Bristol last week, says diplomatically: "Wesley has taken the very sensible view that he must go through the procedures first. If he wants to become British, no problem. We would treat him just like any other British player, but one would have to have sympathy for the South Africans, losing such a promising young player."

Whitehouse says he has discussed his plans with the other South Africans on the men's tour. "They wanted to know the reasoning, they want me to stay and tried to talk me out of it, though some have been supportive. But I want to move immediately, get started as quickly as I can."

Then we may be seeing a British Davis Cup team made up of one British- born player (Henman), one from Canada (Rusedski) and two who have made the switch from South Africa, Broad and Whitehouse.