SA tennis heartache in Australia
It was a case of "so near, so far" for South Africans Kevin Anderson and Chanel Simmonds on Saturday as they crashed to narrow defeats on the eve of next week's Australian Open grand slam tournament in Melbourne.
South African No 1 Anderson, playing in his fourth ATP final in the Sydney International tournament, was beaten 6-3, 6-7 (2), 6-3 by Australia's Bernard Tomic after appearing in control for most of the final two sets.
The 20-year-old Simmonds, South Africa's No 2 women's player, fell at the final qualifying hurdle in her attempt to reach the main draw of the Australian Open.
Simmonds lost 4-6, 6-1, 8-6 against Michelle Larcher de Brito, who was born in South Africa before moving with her family to Portugal.
Anderson, a two-time ATP champion, dropped a mere one point on service in the second set and dominated the tiebreaker, ironically only giving Tomic the crucial break of service in the third set with a double fault.
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The 20-year-old Tomic, who won his first ATP title, and Anderson have both stood out on the current Australian circuit for their markedly improved play, and provided an entertaining, high-class final that lasted two hours, 50 minutes, and was tantalisingly in the balance until 3-3 in the third set.
Anderson's form was generally encouraging as he now moves on to Melbourne for the Australian Open where he is expected to have the measure of Italy's Paolo Lorenzi with his powerful serve in the first round.
But matters could become a good deal more difficult thereafter as a result of Anderson missing out on one of the 32 seedings by a mere one ranking position.
A second-round clash against relentless Argentine 11th seed Juan Monaco is on the cards, with a whole host of potentially difficult encounters to follow.
Simmonds, regarded by many as South Africa's most promising tennis prospect, had gained victories over two players ranked more than 50 places higher than her in the world in earlier qualifiers.
She was forced to travel to Australia without a coach because of a lack of sponsorship, but matched De Brito until the last point of an engrossing three-hour match, having controlled the opening set.
Simmonds' coach, former ATP player Earl Grainger, who has shaped her career locally, was furious that she had been forced to travel alone, and lashed out at Tennis South Africa.
"Only the lack of experience and not having a coach at her side cost her the match," Grainger said.
"Had it been anywhere else in the world, a player of her potential would surely have received assistance for this important trip to Australia from the national association."
Following Simmonds' defeat, the only South African in the women's singles at the Australian Open will be Chanelle Scheepers, who begins her campaign with a tricky opening game against the Czech Republic's 23rd-seeded Klara Zackopalova.