SOUTH AMERICA DREAMS OF A TENNIS REJUVENATION
Moments before the official opening ceremony of the ITF World Junior Tennis Finals, the cautious Paraguayan captain Gustavo Ramirez addressed the task awaiting South American teams.
Although he spoke lovingly of the amazing players that had driven his boys’ team to the ITF World Junior Tennis finals for the first time in their history, at the same time his words were draped with sober realism: “It’s very difficult because in Europe they have good players,” he said. “It’s not the same level as in South America. But we know that they are young and they are learning so the final goal is to get the experience to compete with the Europeans.”
Joyously for him, his words have not aged well. Throughout the week in Prostejov, South American boys’ teams have neither simply made up the numbers, nor pluckily pulled together enough competitive matches for the journey to the Czech Republic to barely be worth the cost. Instead, they have won. Constantly.
Argentina, Paraguay and Peru’s quarterfinal berths marked the first time this had happened since 1993. When Paraguay and Peru advanced to the semifinals on Thursday, it was the first time in 20 years that two South American nations had done so.
Even beyond the titans of Argentina, South America’s tennis history is rich and fabled, from Brazil’s Gustavo Kuerten to Peru’s own Alex Olmedo. For the Peruvian team that roared into the semifinals with an 11-9 final set tiebreak victory in the doubles against Argentina, their failure to gain any traction in this event since their last top eight finish in 1993 was wholly representative of their inability to compete at the top levels across the sport.
As the court was flooded with South American players from a variety of countries after Peru’s victory, the question on everyone’s minds is whether this could mark a turning point for the future of South American tennis.
“25 years ago, I was also working as captain of the team,” said Peru captain Miguel Maurtua. “At that time, the team was one of the best teams in our history. They made it into the  Davis Cup [World Group]. It’s deja vu for me now, working with a younger generation and doing what we have done. Peru has a chance to take advantage of what we have now with these players. We have been looking forward to this – in 25 years our tennis has been sort of stale.”
For both the players and coach, the staleness of Peruvian tennis, and tennis in South American countries beyond Argentina, has much to do with the professionalisation of the sport throughout the 21st century. Their countries fared well decades ago when the field was level and the sport was a mess, still working itself out at the dawn of the Open era. But as federations have built structures and top players have built teams, many South American nations have been left in the dust.
“You have have to look at the economic differences, but it’s not only that,” explained Maurtua. “They have very good planning programmes for the juniors. In Peru, it’s more parents’ responsibilities to help every player.”
He further highlighted the difficulty of encountering competition, something that is still readily available for even the poorest European nations. “Tennis has gotten very tough, there is a lot of competition and for us it is very difficult economically to fly around,” he said. “And that’s basic for any player who wants to go and play professional and advance in the rankings. He has to get out of Peru to practice, to play more tournaments.”
The contrasts seem particularly stark to the players while in the Czech Republic, which doesn’t have so much money but their ruthless efficiency has allowed them to benefit more from the professionalisation of the sport than just about any other tennis country in recent years.
“It has better organization [than Peru],” explained Gonzalo Bueno, Peru’s talisman and the third-ranked player in South America.“The complex is clean, the courts have stadium. In Peru we don’t even have a stadium.”
Ignacio Buse, their second player, agreed. “That stadium? You can’t find that anywhere in Peru. The roof can open and close, and that is wonderful to see. The courts are in a very good state. In our country, they’re not so good. Well, they’re good, but here they’re wonderful. All of them.”
But Maurtua also explained that things are changing and that both the federation and government are starting to help more. This is reflected in the players, who seem more developed and more potent than years before. This is no truer than Gonzalo Bueno, whose talent was blinding as he thoroughly outplayed Argentina’s Lautaro Midon, the second-ranked player in South America, with a silky variety of spins, slices, effortless shotmaking and intelligence.
To catch players at this age is to see them before they are burdened with the constant failures and overwhelming pressures that are inescapable in tennis. For now, their reasons for playing are all hopes and dreams and for the love of the game. Gonzalo said he followed his brother to tennis and never stopped playing. Peru’s third player Gianluca Ballota played a bit of football until tennis ‘took his attention’.
Ignacio, meanwhile, very deliberately underlined his love for the sport. “One day, my dad told me to play. I liked it a lot, a lot, a lot. I thought it was a lot of fun. I’m still practicing every day since little, little, and now I’m here.” Then he smiled.
After the court was flooded with South American players following Peru’s victory over Argentina, the mothers who traveled with their three sons to Prostejov, who were loud and vocal throughout, stormed onto the clay, too. Bueno explained that the increased interest from their parents has also contributed to their rise.
“My parents weren’t interested in tennis before, but when I began to play, they became a bit more interested, gave more attention to it. They learnt how it works and bit by bit they accompanied me to more tournaments that I play.“
Ultimately, the question is whether their palpable love for the sport, the overwhelming parental support, the talent and the physical and mental qualities that may or may not develop will be enough to paper over the gaps that still exist in South American tennis structures. “I hope they keep working because talent is not enough. Hard work does it all,” said Maurtua.
When asked to pinpoint the moment he realised he was good at tennis, Bueno’s response was strikingly honest. “We’re still juniors,” he shrugged. “We’re playing at our best level so far but we still haven’t arrived at the point that we can say we’re good players. We are not professionals. We have to develop more, gain more muscles and then I think that we have possibilities to arrive there”.
Realism has worked tremendously for South American teams in Prostejov this year. It doesn’t seem like the time to stop.