A dream for Tennis Jamaica
Members of Estonia's Davis Cup team (back row, from left ) Johannes Seeman, Kristjan Tamm, Jürgen Zopp, Oliver Ojakäär, Kenneth Raisma, Ekke Tiideman pose with their Jamaican counterparts (front row, from left) Randy Phillips, Daniel Azar, Mel Spence, Tennis Jamaica President John Azar during a Davis Cup press event at the AC Hotel in Kingston on Friday. (Photo: Joseph Wellington)

Most Jamaicans don't know, but half-a-century ago a few local tennis players, led by the legendary Mr Richard Russell, were household names in this country.

Mr Russell, who was awarded the Order of Distinction in the Rank of Officer (OD) at the National Honours and Awards Ceremony last October, was among Jamaica's leading sports personalities in the 1960s and 70s.

He is reputed, according to the Government's information arm, the Jamaica Information Service, to be the only Jamaican to progress past the first round of all four tennis Grand Slam tournaments — the Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon, and US Open.

Mr Russell gained acclaim far and wide in 1966 when he teamed with the late Mr Lance Lumsden to beat the vaunted US pair of Messrs Arthur Ashe and Charles Passarel in their Davis Cup doubles tie in Kingston.

We are told that Mr Russell won more than 12 Davis Cup matches. That tournament dates back to 1900 and got its name from pioneering organiser Mr Dwight Davis.

Today the Davis Cup is said to be the largest annual international team competition in global sport with 155 nations currently entered.

We have been taken down this colourful memory lane following news that Jamaica is hosting European nation Estonia in a Davis Cup tie today and tomorrow at the Eric Bell Tennis Centre on Piccadilly Road in St Andrew.

Newly renovated and expanded, the tennis centre now has a capacity of 1,000 spectators and Tennis Jamaica President John Azar wants Jamaicans to come out and support the team which, he believes, can advance to the next round.

"Hopefully, the crowd will be out in its numbers and I'm certain that they [players] are amped up to play at home," said Mr Azar.

The Jamaica team, comprising Messrs Blaise Bicknell, Randy Phillips, John Jacob Bicknell, and Daniel Azar, has been described as a mix of experience and youth.

"We're picking a team to do very well at this stage today, but also grooming some of our younger players to become the leaders of tomorrow," Mr Azar said.

Unsurprisingly, the players are also yearning for crowd support. "… I think that [fan support] can be the determining factor for us… I think that can push us further and allow us to fight a little bit harder and do our absolute best …" said Mr Phillips.

Crucially, it seems to this newspaper, regardless of the actual results on the court, a tournament such as this can help to reimage tennis in the eyes of Jamaicans.

As the situation now stands, only a few traditional Jamaican high schools are actively involved in competitive tennis and most people do not identify with the sport locally.

A challenge for Tennis Jamaica should be to change that mindset. The glorious memories of performances 50 years ago by people like Messrs Russell and Lumsden should inspire and motivate Mr Azar and his team to try their very best.

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