For a nation that has been blessed with an endless chain of fine, world-class tennis players, the reality that Zimbabwean tennis had reached its Waterloo became hard to take for succeeding administrators who chose to live in denial lest they be labelled as the guys who took a proud sport down.
To bring into perspective how dire the situation is now, you only have to rewind the tape: back in1953 when club tennis was at its peak, the country’s tennis playing population was recorded as a staggering 5 200!
We are talking here of serious tennis players who competed for their provincial and national colours.
There were bigger numbers than now, of all times, when playing opportunities have been opened up to citizens of all races.
Ten years later, in 1963, Rhodesia — as the country was known then — had the distinction of being one of the few countries to win a Davis Cup tie in their first year of entry when they beat the Netherlands 4-1 on debut.
And it is a fitting tribute that the man who was non-playing captain that year was the legendary Don Black, whose three kids would preserve Zimbabwe’s proud place on the world tennis map after Independence.
In the same year Adrian Bey, the leading player in that team, reached the last 16 of the men’s singles at Wimbledon for the second time. Three years earlier in 1960 he had also sailed through to the last 16. He remains the only local player to have reached that far in the singles of the world’s most celebrated tennis championships.
When a number of larger nations who drew players from their full population could only dream of producing a singles player with a decent ATP or WTA tours ranking, this country continued to belie its small population to churn out more red-hot talent.
In 1975, 19-year-old Colin Dowdeswell became the first local to reach a Wimbledon final. He partnered Tasmanian Allan Stone to reach the doubles final, which they lost.
But Dowdeswell’s finest hour was probably beating Argentinian Guillermo Vilas, then the world’s top player, in the semifinals of the South African Open to record his best singles triumph.
That success was not just limited to men. In 1972, locally born girls Pat Pretorious and Brenda Kirk — playing for their adopted country South Africa — won the Federation Cup- international tennis’s premier competition for women.
That level of success carried on to the post-Independence era, thanks to the exploits of the Black siblings, and later on doubles specialist Kevin Ullyett.
Brothers Byron and Wayne Black have hung up their racquets. Doubles specialist Ullyett is winding up his career on the circuit, and female sensation Cara Black is not growing any younger.
For years, different tennis players were touted as heir apparent to this golden generation.
We remember such names as Gwinyai Tongoona, Gwinyai Chingoka, Peter Nyamande, Martin Dzuwa, Genius Chidzikwe and Tsitsi Masviba, among others, as players who either just lacked the talent to make the cut, or had their names used for propaganda purposes by administrators to mislead the nation.
To those who cared to listen, the good times were still going to roar.
The whole nation patiently waited for the time their potential would bloom.
It was never to be.
And it will never be for the foreseeable future. But why is Zimbabwe tennis in such a mess?