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Wednesday, 17 April 2013 13:41

TENNIS: Bianca Birkenstock - A Glimmer of Hope

Written by  Bryce Foss

Not since the days of Amanda Coetzer has South Africa been able to proudly proclaim that it has a female tennis player to write home about. The allure of the USA and the institutional indifference to developing young talent has meant that youngsters either fall through the proverbial cracks into obscurity or seek greener pastures.

 teni111Much like the England cricket and rugby teams; Southern Africans are thriving in their adopted nations; their homeland forced to clutch at straws by claiming that ‘he/she is South African-born’. One can only speculate as to how far Roger Federer would have progressed if his South African mother had made the decision to raise her son in Johannesburg, rather than Basel. Those are but cautionary tales however; this has the potential to be an inspirational one.

On the North Coast of KwaZulu-Natal, a pretender is emerging with the talent, discipline and dogged determination required to make the step up into the next tier. Surrounded by the relative luxury of the Crawford La Lucia campus, the soft-spoken Bianca Birkinstock clearly has the inner combativeness and controlled aggression that consumes individual athletes on the field of battle, but can be switched off when the whistle sounds or the confrontation is halted with the call of Game, Set, Match.

Ever the ‘average schoolgirl’, Bianca is anything but when one considers her self-imposed schedule of torture. Whilst her classmates are more than willing to spend up to ten hours in bed, Bianca is on the court at 5am on most mornings, with afternoon sessions sure to follow. These are the sacrifices that a young Chad le Close spoke of when I interviewed him as a schoolboy. When friends are stumbling home at 4am; those who lust for glory are waking up; putting in the hard yards that others refuse to; safe in the gratitude that this will be the difference between superstardom and anonymity.

From the age of five, before even taking her first steps into ‘big school’, young Bianca was already taking the first tentative steps of her all-consuming quest. Under the tutelage of Rowena Saunders (an esteemed coach out of Westridge Tennis Club), the former Eden College learner quickly established herself as one of those players that the parents of potential opponents whisper about, on the periphery of the courts at local tournaments; her name garnering an uncomfortable concoction of awe and trepidation.

A Durban North local from Grade Five, she made the move to Crawford La Lucia, citing a need to stay within the Crawford system that has proven itself to be a welcome success story on the South African educational landscape. With its picturesque sea views of maritime traffic patiently awaiting entry into Africa’s busiest port; the flipside of such a privileged setting is the powerful gusts of wind that are synonymous with seaside communities and are the bane of tennis players, rugby placekickers and golfers alike. Birkinstock makes the conscious choice to view training in such adverse conditions as a means of improving her stroke play, with the proverbial uphill battle of every session making an average day at the office seem like a cakewalk.    

Long perceived to be a school of academic repute with a strong swimming program, Crawford La Lucia has come into its own with noticeable improvements in a variety of sports; Bianca featuring prominently in a number of them. A former soccer player and provincial representative at both indoor netball and athletics (800m & 1500m), she is well aware that in a time consuming individual sporting vocation, the decision to specialize and live like a professional needs to be taken sooner, rather than later.

As is the trend for South African school-leavers with international aspirations, the American collegiate system tops the list of young Bianca’s three year plan. With over two thousand tertiary institutions in the States, the questions of where she will find the best tennis program, scholarship and faculty in her choice of Psychology as a major; will all be considerations that she will have to weigh up before making the brave leap into the pro ranks.  

Of course, all is not lost if Bianca finds herself remaining on South African soil. The bilingual teen is a great admirer of the facilities at NWU Pukke (Potchefstroom University) and the general sporting prowess of Tuks. With sponsors Dunlop and Topspin taking care of her equipment and clothing needs respectively, Birkinstock is clearly one who has been earmarked for greater things by those in the know. Far from a run of the mill talent, she has not only represented SA Schools through the age group ranks, but has won both the Inland and Coastal National tournaments, at different age groups. With the Eurocentric craze of teens being home schooled to maximize training time, these victories are perhaps the most significant signs that Bianca in an intimidating presence on the local circuit.

With her talents leading her as far afield as America and the UK, Birkinstock will pay her dues at her local tennis club (Prospect in Durban North) for the foreseeable future. The competitive KZN Club League will pit her against grown women who have the savvy and strength to capitalize on any perceived weakness in her game; a constructive challenge that will add another dimension to her pursuit, in preparation for the lofty expectation of all-round perfection that comes with that massive next step up the ladder.

The gap between talented and world-class is a seismic one; a gulf that consumes the hopes and dreams of thousands. The mental fortitude and stoicism required is what proves the difference. If it is true that one does not truly know the limits of their character until they face adversity on the sports field, then the true test of Bianca Birkinstock is yet to come. One thing is certain however; South Africa indeed possesses a rough diamond that has the potential to bring glory to a sport that was once so prevalent in our national psyche.

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