CAPE TOWN - Roxanne Clarke will become part of South African tennis history when she leads the country' first Billie Jean King Cup team in the Europe/Africa Zone Group III competition next year.
She has just been appointed captain of the SA women's team for four years. The newly named Billie Jean King Cup competition was previously known as the Fed Cup and even earlier the Federation Cup. It is the world's biggest annual women's international team sports competition.
She takes over from former international star Rene Plant who held the reins for the past four years, and her term has ended. Plant, a former junior Wimbledon singles finalist, decided not to re-apply for the post.
The 35-year-old Clarke was raised on the Cape Flats. Her late parents were deeply involved in tennis at various levels of the game, both as players and administrators. Her late father Colin Clarke, a pharmacist, was a former secretary-general of the South African Council on Sport (Sacos). He was a Tennis South African executive member when he chaired the meetings that led to the unification of national tennis.
Her mother Lynette was a champion at various levels under the banner of the non-racial SA Tennis Union which was affiliated to Sacos. "She is probably the reason why I started playing tennis at the age of six," Clarke said in an interview.
Clarke has been out of the country since 2018. She headed up the ITF Pacific Oceania Training Centre, Lautoka, Fiji. She was saddled with a massive responsibility to take care of all the leading players in the Pacific Oceania region which now has 21 countries on its member's list.
As a result of Covid-19, the ITF Pacific Oceania Training Centre has closed, and Clarke returned to Cape Town and applied for the SA captain's post.
"For the last three years I've been based in Fiji, as the Director/Head Coach of the ITF Pacific Oceania Training Centre," said Clarke. "The Centre is one of three such Centres supported by the ITF to provide a high-performance training environment to promising juniors in the Pacific region."
Clarke has previously played for the Fed Cup team and the experience will stand her in good stead.
"I was a member of the Fed Cup Team in 2003 and 2004. The team competed in Euro/Africa Group I in Portugal and advanced to a World Group playoff tie against the Czech Republic, which was played in Durban," Clarke recalled.
"It was a huge learning experience for me and a dream, as I got to rub shoulders with some of South Africa's best players at the time."
As a 16-year-old, Clarke obtained a scholarship to the ITF Training Centre in Pretoria. She went on to represent South Africa at several events including the Under-16 World Championships, Commonwealth Youth Games and the African Junior Championships.
In later years, Clarke was charged with guiding junior teams at several international events.
"Early in 2020, I captained the Pacific Oceania 14 and under girls team at the ITF World Junior Team competition in Jakarta, Indonesia," said Clarke.
"In 2019, I captained the Pacific Oceania Junior Fed Cup Team, which competed in the Asia/Oceania final qualifying in Bangkok, Thailand.
"I also have experience coaching South Africa's Girls 14 and under team in regional and African competitions.
"In my role with the ITF, I managed players competing in ITF Junior events, including junior Grand Slams. One of my players from the Northern Mariana Islands became the first player in her country to compete in the Australian Open and the US Open Junior events."
Promotion will be foremost on Clarke's mind when the competition starts next year.
"The immediate goal for the team would be to advance to Euro/Africa Group II," said Clarke. "Beyond that, I would like to help in creating a better support structure for our elite players, our up-and-coming players and their coaches. This is something I will work on closely with Tennis South Africa."
Clarke still maintains contact with some of the players she was coaching in Fiji.
"Currently I am based in Cape Town. The pandemic has forced many of us in the coaching industry to adapt and work remotely as much as we can," said Clarke.
"I am still working with the ITF and my team in Fiji to support our players, even though the training centre had to close in March."
It is very worrying that SA has only three females in the world's top 1000 players and that has a direct bearing on the strength of the SA team. It is a situation that needs attention.
"There certainly is no quick fix for getting more players to compete at the highest level in our sport," said Clarke.
"The key is the development and retention of players. There is a general decline in the participation of girls once they reach the age of 15 or 16. We have to find a way to keep these players competing and help them see a future as tennis players.
"I do not doubt that we have the coaching expertise in our country to produce players, but our players need support with their long-term development pathways, as well as more opportunities to compete internationally.
"Having been out of South Africa for the past few years, I haven't been able to gauge who our up-and-coming talents are. I am back home now and will be travelling to tournaments regularly to see our girls compete."