South Africa’s top wheelchair tennis aces Evans Maripa and Lucas Sithole cleared the first hurdle in the Airports Company South Africa Gauteng Open in Benoni on Tuesday. Both South African Paralympian’s claimed straight set victories in the first round at the Gauteng East Tennis Centre, while Men’s defending champion Stephane Houdet from France and 2014 Quad winner David Wagner from the United States also enjoyed success on the first day of the UNQLO International Wheelchair Tour event. Maripa defeated compatriot Patrick Selepe 6-2 6-0 in the Men’s Singles, while Sithole beat Ymanitu Silva from Brazil 7-5 6-1.
World number four Sithole was made to work in the first set, but the South African controlled the second set and sent the Brazilian packing. Sithole says: ‘I was a little tight at the start, but I loosened up in the second set and found rhythm and pace. I had some personal stuff going on and didn’t compete in as many international events last year. I slipped from second to fourth in rankings because I didn’t defend my points. My aim this year is to get back up the rankings and the chase starts this week.’ Houdet, who is testing a new chair, dispatched Dutch player Ricky Molier 6-1 6-0 and was equally pleased to get his title defence off to a positive start.
The top seed said: ‘I am happy that the new chair performed very well. This chair has been years in a making. It is a carbon-fibre chair that allows me to stand on my knees and that puts me in a similar position to when I was playing able-bodied tennis. I have a lot more movement. It is early, though, and it will be interesting to see how the chair and I hold up against the top seeds later this week.’ World number one Wagner only arrived in South Africa late on Tuesday, but showed no signs of jet lag as he romped to a 6-1 6-0 victory against Sebastian Jance from France in the Quad Singles. Meanwhile former top SA juniors Mariska Venter and Thando Hlatshwayo celebrated successful debuts in the Women’s Singles.
Hlatshwayo defeated Nomo-Afrika Gxumisa 6-1 6-0, while Venter won by the same margin against Tsholofele Sibanda. Both rookies will face formidable opponents in the second round, but the prospect of battling two former champions did little to diminish their confidence. Hlatshwayo will play 2013 champion and world number nine KG Montjane, while Verwey goes head-to-head with top seed Sabine Ellerbrock from Germany, the winner in 2014.
Hlatshwayo says: ‘We will probably both get beaten, but just don’t expect us to play like losers. This is a great opportunity for Mariska and me to get experience against world class players. We are going to make the most of this chance.’ Verwey held the number one spot in the World Junior Girls Ranking last year and is currently ranked 40th in the ITF Wheelchair Tennis Womens World Ranking. The 18-year old Ermelo player said: ‘This is a real chance to test ourselves and to gain experience. The matches will show our strengths, but also highlight our weaknesses. Thando and I will be competing internationally in May and I think it is really good to see what works doesn’t work well, so we can concentrate on these aspects before we leave.’
All the doubles matches had to be moved to Thursday morning after a heavy deluge forced organisers to suspend play at 14:45. Play will start at 09:00 Thursday.
Photo: Thando Hlatswayo of South Africa in action against Noma-Afrika Gxumisa also of South Africa in the first round of the women’s singles during day 1 of the Airports Company South Africa Gauteng Open at the Gauteng East Tennis Complex on Wednesday.
Photo credit: Reg Caldecott/Gallo Images