Amanda Coetzer has always recognized the importance of language, because at home in South Africa, language can connote many things, including political leanings.
Coetzer, who speaks Afrikaans, English and French, is not political, but this weekend, as she sat with friends in the house she has rented near the All England Club, she couldn't help but marvel at the graciousness of South African President Nelson Mandela.
He recently telephoned Coetzer, the No. 6 seed at Wimbledon, which begins today. "It was one of the most thrilling things for me that I've ever experienced."
Mandela is the leader of the black majority that rules South Africa, and Coetzer is the daughter of a prominent Afrikaner attorney. The Afrikaners, South Africans of European descent, who were the architects of apartheid, are often stereotyped as conservative and opposed to change, Coetzer said.
"It isn't always the true picture," she said. "And it was something so special to speak to Mandela. He even spoke to me a little in Afrikaans, which is very out of the ordinary and so special I didn't know what to say. It was recognition. He knows that I'm Afrikaans-speaking. Our country is so diverse, so many different languages, cultures. It meant a lot to me that he made the effort to speak in my language."
Mandela, no doubt, had reason to make the effort.
Coetzer, a 5-foot-2, 122-pound package of boundless energy, has become the most successful South African women's player in the modern era.
A year ago at the Australian Open, she became the second South African woman in the Open era to reach the semifinals of a Grand Slam event. Earlier this spring, she became the first woman from her country to crack the modern Top 10 rankings. Two weeks ago, she made the semifinals of the French Open, slugging her way past No. 2 seed Steffi Graf. And today, she begins her attack on the Wimbledon championships.
"I think I'm hitting the ball better on grass, but playing well here takes a lot of experience and I only play on grass once a year," she said. "It's certainly the biggest challenge I face. My main goal is to be a better competitor, and I think I can play better than last year."
Last year, like five of the previous seven years she has competed at Wimbledon, Coetzer was ousted in the second round. Only once, in 1994, did she make it as far as the fourth. Coetzer is an obvious underdog at Wimbledon, but it is not the first time she has found herself in that position. Like Michael Chang, one of the smallest competitors on the men's tour,
Coetzer has to run farther and faster than her opponents and hit the ball harder with more consistency to have a chance at victory. On grass, it is just harder.
Her father has recalled that even when she was a 4-year-old picking up a racket for the first time, Coetzer would not be put off because she was too small to cope with a ball machine or adults. He'd chase her away, and she'd go hit the ball against a wall.
"She always wanted to play," her father, Nico, said. "And she has always been a good athlete. But the one thing that has always set her apart is her love for the game."
Coetzer's love for tennis spills over into her life off the court. She has spent time organizing and contributing financially to a program within her country called "Learn Tennis, Love Tennis." It is directed at youngsters in small, remote townships who have little opportunity to learn the game. It is a program not unlike inner-city tennis programs in the United States.
"I want those kids to have a way to learn a skill and enjoy the game," said Coetzer, 25, who grew up in Hoopstad, a small farming town. "Maybe some of them might make it a career, but that's not my goal in this. I've gotten so much enjoyment from playing tennis, just playing. The tiny town where I grew up was so isolated, the aspect of pro tennis never came in to it. But I spent a lot of time, hours, hitting the ball against a wall pretending I was in the Wimbledon finals. It just made me so happy to play."
She said the program is still small, but added that she is talking to big companies, like Nike, trying to generate additional financial support.
"I'd like to give some of those kids the opportunity just to have that kind of fun, like I did growing up," she said. "The township areas are still pretty rural, and a lot of people have tried a lot of different things to help the kids there, but it is still a hard life."
When: Today through July 6
Where: All England Club, Wimbledon, England
Top seeds: Men, Pete Sampras; women, Martina Hingis
Last year's champions: Men, Richard Krajicek; women, Steffi Graf
TV today: 9 a.m., HBO
Centre Court: Marcello Craca vs. Richard Krajicek (4); Mark Philippoussis (7) vs. Greg Rusedski; Chanda Rubin vs. Anna Kournikova
Court 1: Tim Henman (14) vs. Daniel Nestor; Michael Stich vs. Jim Courier; Rachel McQuillan vs. Monica Seles (2)
Court 2: Dinu Pescariu vs. Goran Ivanisevic (2); Iva Majoli (4) vs. Mariana Diaz Oliva; Amanda Coetzer (6) vs. Alexandra Fusai; Yevgeny Kafelnikov (3) vs. Juan-Antonio Marin
Court 3: Steve Bryan vs. Carlos Moya (10); Justin Gimelstob vs. Gustavo Kuerten (11)
Court 6: Kimberly Po (13) vs. Kerry-Anne Guse
Court 13: Tami Whitlinger-Jones vs. Lindsay Davenport (5); Kristie Boogert vs. Barbara Paulus (16)
Court 18: Henrieta Nagyova vs. Irina Spirlea (12); Wayne Ferreira vs. Scott Draper
Pub Date: 6/23/97