It is now 15 years since Zimbabwe took part in the Davis Cup World Group and several attempts to return to this elite stage have been futile.
BY MICHAEL MADYIRA
After sinking to the lowest tier, the Euro/Africa Zone Group IV to mark the country’s Davis Cup dark years, Zimbabwe now appears to be on a reclamation course.
As if the script was plucked from the local game’s history books, the attempt to get back to the top tier of the competition currently involves 18-year-old Courtney Lock, a key soldier on the battlefront.
Twenty four years ago, local legend Wayne Black made his Davis Cup debut at the age of 18 when Zimbabwe was in the Euro/Africa Group II and now, Lock has plunged into this tournament with the country in the same Group.
While it took six years for Black to help the country burst into the World Group, an anxious nation waits to see how long the current team will take to rejoin the elite league.
Looking at the feat attained by Black and his teammates who spent three years in the World Group, the current team must bring down the standing records.
“We are a young team so the best years lie ahead,” said Lock. “We want to get back to the World Group. We speak a lot about it. It might not be immediate but we will eventually get there. It is a process.”
Standing two rungs below the elite group, the journey to the top appears insurmountable, having failed to jump to Group 1 after succumbing to Bosnia-Herzegovina last March.
But what inspires the Martin Dzuwa-captained side is that they managed to maintain their Group II status last month by whitewashing Moldova 5-0.
It was a dream debut for Lock who helped Zimbabwe wrap up the series at 3-0 against Moldova when he partnered Mark Fynn to beat Dmitrii Baskov and Andrei Soultoianu 7-5 5-7 7-6 6-3 in the doubles.
His brother Benjamin, Takanyi Garanganga and Tadiwa Chinamo are other members of Team Zimbabwe.
Drawing from his experience, Black concedes it is not an easy ride for the current crop to get into the world stage although they stand good chances.
“It was very hard for us back then,” said Black. “It took us a number of years. When we got into the World Group, Byron [his elder brother] and I were already in the top 100. But I feel the current guys stand the same chances as we had back then.”
Black has been an inspiration to the current team, having been part of the Bosnia-Herzegovina tie where he partnered Fynn after coming out of retirement at the age of 41, following a 10-year hiatus.
Now back into retirement, his presence during Moldova’s visit was meant to offer moral support and to his credit, he helped steady the team’s nerves, especially debutant Lock who had immense pressure to impress on the home court.
“I was nervous,” said Lock. “During team talk just before the first match, Wayne came to the dressing rooms and he told us that we had trained hard for this match and we deserved to win. I then came out of the lockers really pumped up.
“As we walked to the courts, my heart was beating a bit and at the same time I was excited. When we were on the court I looked at my parents and Benjie. Their eyes were on me as well. I felt inspired. I took a deep breath and thought how I had dreamt for this moment to come. Mark then said ‘let’s give it our best.’ The crowd pushed us as well, it was amazing. Everything fell into place.”
It was an outing in which Lock exhibited his big-match temperament. “I am a very emotional player. That is my character. I am always fired up and whatever I am feeling at that time, I will show it. It has got its disadvantages at times though. But I do not let it affect my game,” said Lock.
He stole the hearts of the fans by constantly spurring on his partner Fynn in Shona shouting “Hande”. The enthusiastic fans were quick to induct him with the nickname Chipembere or MaRhino, a traditional Christening of all local Davis Cup players.
“I think that name suits me very well because of my aggressiveness. I love it. My hairstyle looks like a rhino’s horn,” said Lock with a chuckle.
Following the maiden Davis Cup outing which was preceded by some Futures tournaments, Lock is now enjoying some rest before he returns to his USA base at the University of Louisville where he is studying Finance while on a tennis scholarship.
But it has not been rosy balancing studies and tennis for the teenager who admits he hit an all-time low earlier this year.
“I went through a dip in February. It was a tough time with my studies and I was not playing that good. I also had some social issues with my girlfriend. But I am now back and strong,” Lock said.
Picking up from his father who also represented Zimbabwe in the Davis Cup, Lock has set his sights on taking part in ATP Tour after college. Wayne, Byron as well as their sister Cara boast of Grand Slam titles together with Kevin Ullyett and Lock appears headed for that route.
His 22-year-old brother Benjamin is also a prospect that could be mentioned as marching towards stealing global attention.
“I am going to fully concentrate on tennis after college,” said Lock. “I see myself playing on the ATP tour. Maybe when I am 24 or 25-years-old I will be there. I have got some rankings now [2076 singles and 1417 doubles] so I just need to improve on them by playing as many Futures tournaments as possible.”
“I know many people compare us to the Blacks but we are different from them. We always joke about it. I have not spoken to Ullyett or Byron before but only Wayne. I think I should speak to Wayne more.”
Given his lanky figure, Lock says he could have simply chosen to pursue football but he set his sights on tennis.
He fondly remembers when, as a 11-year-old in 2008 he guarded goal for the St Johns Preparatory School Under-12 against Dynamos juniors as curtain raisers before a CAF Champions League Group A match against Zamalek.
“We lost that match 2-1,” he says with a chuckle. “I used to play some cricket as well and I still play a bit of golf but I feel I am more talented in tennis and that is why I want to turn professional after school.”