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Back You are here: Home Sports Tennis KZN Stefan Fortmann - SA's Young Tennis Ace
Thursday, 11 November 2010 09:07

Stefan Fortmann - SA's Young Tennis Ace


The older among us will remember a time when South African tennis held its own on the world stage. Amanda Coetzer, the gutsy Free Stater who competed with the best on the women's circuit; Wayne Ferreira breaking into the men's top ten and South Africa-born IMG_4359Kevin Curren reaching a Wimbledon final. The last ten years have seemingly spelt the end to South Africa's claim of being a tennis power on the world stage. Unable to cope with Russian professionalism, American brute force or European panache, the future of South African tennis looked look-warm to say the least.

Enter Stefan Fortmann, an eighteen year old matric at Wartburg High School who has spun the local tennis fraternity into a nostalgic frenzy. A hope that they could one day enter the gates of Wimbledon with South African flags on their backs, rather than sheepish neutral spectators taking in the sights.The intensity of individual sports such as tennis and golf often lead to young children packing their bags for an academy on a different continent. Many a Russian teenager has called Florida home since their early teens and 'family' are those people with the same surname who you may visit twice a year.

On the home front, South African youngsters tend to be home schooled by parents who often put military drill sergeants to shame; forgetting the simple fact that their children still seek enjoyment from the game they love. Stefan Fortmann has been lucky enough to avoid such a hindrance.

"My family weren't really tennis enthusiasts when I started playing, but that's actually been ideal for me. We are a sporting family (his dad represented SA Country Districts in Badminton), but they encourage rather than pressure me and that makes playing so much easier. I'm lucky in that my coach, Mark Vorwerk pushes me to improve, but never to the point that it becomes unenjoyable. He makes sure the love of the game is still most important. Ultimately, a true sportsman doesn't need to be forced to give their all; it must be instinctive".

It all began for a young Stefan with a trip to the local supermarket. "My earliest tennis-related memory was during the July school holidays in 2000. I remember being bored at home so I tagged along with my mom to the shops, just to get out the house. There was a sign outside advertising a two day tennis course that I glanced over, just by chance. I had never played tennis before and hardly paid it any attention. I went to the course just to pass the time and I've been hooked ever since."

I want to play against the best in the country

The above mentioned leisurely pace of life in a small town leads many a Wartburg youngster to leave the German village in the KZN Midlands for the relative excitement of Durban, Pietermaritzburg or Pretoria. For the positively composed Fortmann, it simply offers more opportunity to see the country that he loves. "I have been approached in the past to move to reputed sporting schools in KZN and other provinces, but it's tough to leave a small village like Wartburg (there are approximately 250 pupils in the high school). I was really comfortable in the town and I didn't feel I needed to move. It also gives me the chance to travel and see now places." Living in an isolated town will invariably lead to extensive travelling, but Stefan relishes the chance to scour the country. "I don't see being on the road as an irritation at all; I find its quite fun. If I was based in a city, I'd probably keep to my group of friends, but with the travelling, I've made friends all over the country over the last eight years. I don't want to play against the best of one city; I want to play against the best in the country".

Not only has Stefan Fortmann competed against the best in the country, he invariably beats them.

11 US universities showing an interest

Having torn his ankle ligaments playing rugby, he missed much of his u18 season (leading to his national ranking taking a predictable slide), but he was the number one ranked boy in South Africa during his time in the u16 age group. "There are a lot of top quality players in South Africa, but if I'm going to make a serious go of it, then the next logical step has to be the college circuit in America".

With eleven US universities showing an interest, Fortmann will be embarking on his four year American adventure in August 2011. The only question remaining is where his preference lies. "It's all quite confusing and I have to look at things like what degrees the universities offer, but I'm leaning towards the University of Central Florida or Tennessee."

The tightly regulated collegiate system will also ensure that there is never a question of burnout or neglecting the books. "You're only allowed to practice for a maximum of twenty hours per week, but I'm excited by that. Here I only have one ninety minute training session per week; there I'll be doing that in a day". Ranked number one in the country with only a single training session per week? Talk about a natural talent.

It seems that his talents extend further than the tennis court. Not only does he enjoy cricket, rugby and hockey, but the KZN Schools Athletics representative (for high jump) also manages to play the odd round of golf to improve his five handicap. There is no doubt of his true love though; he has made a hobby of collecting old wooden tennis rackets, which clutter his themed room. "If anybody has any unwanted wooden rackets, I'd love it if they contact me on Facebook. I'm trying to collect as many as I can".

The town of Wartburg itself is an eclectic fusion of African custom and German modernity, with many of the locals being fluent in the European tongue. "German is actually my home language and I feel equally comfortable speaking it as I am with English". This begs the question of why he has not considered the opportunities that lie in traditional tennis powers such as Germany, Austria, Belgium and Switzerland. The culture shock would be non-existent and he could quite easily study in his mother tongue if he wished. "It's just a known fact that if you want to end up going pro in Europe, you need financial backing from someone. The American collegiate system opens so many more doors to eventually go pro and of course there's the advantage of experiencing the American college life. The top Europeans go over to play on the US college circuit anyway, so it has many advantages over Europe".

I think any tennis player's dream, especially in South Africa, is still to play at Wimbledon

Such enviable development structures inevitably lead to emotive comparisons made by South African tennis supporters who feel that not enough is done to harness the plethora of young talent that we produce. Fortmann views the matter with a refreshingly unique outlook. "I don't think it's as bad as people make it out to be, because there are positives to being a junior in South Africa. Overseas you are identified at a very early age and are pretty much channeled into a career in a sport immediately.

South Africa gives kids more freedom to be kids and have more normal life experiences. There are one or two tennis schools around, but generally you have the life of a normal kid and mix with people outside of tennis; it's far healthier."

Where Fortmann is blessed is that his freedom to be a normal teenager is aligned with the help of others who give him a fighting chance at living his dream. Sponsored by Head and mentored by long-time coach Mark Vorwerk, Stefan has all the tools to study the finer points of the game. "Mark has been my only coach and I've been lucky enough to work with him for the past ten years. Every Wednesday evening he travels up to Wartburg all the way from Hillcrest (a 75 minute journey) and it means a lot to me."

Ever a student of the game, Stefan bypasses the usual Nadal/Federer stereotypes and lists Nikolay Davydenko as the player he most admires. "Obviously Federer is a magician and you can learn so much from watching him, but the player I enjoy watching most is Davydenko. I think our games are similar; we're both relatively small guys who rely on speed and agility. He's not the most consistent player on the men's tour, but when he's on fire, he plays the sort of game that I want to have".

As Rafael Nadal can attest to, your playing style and physical attributes tend to lend themselves to certain surfaces. Whilst the vast majority of South Africans see tennis as an exclusively hard court game, Fortmann has used his travel opportunities to broaden his tennis horizons. "I got the chance to play on clay in Argentina in 2007 (whilst representing SA Schools) and it's definitely the surface that best suits my game. It involves a lot of sliding and ball-fetching and that plays to my speed off the mark, which I think is my strength." Before you book his ticket for the 2015 French Open , he still favours the bastion of the All England Club. "I think any tennis player's dream, especially in South Africa, is still to play at Wimbledon. Even though clay suits me better than grass, Wimbledon still has the edge over any other grand slam."

Having represented South Africa in International Zone Six in Swaziland, SA Schools in Argentina and competed in the ITF's in Botswana, this well-travelled teen is lucky enough to have time on his side.

"Girls are able to break into the pro ranks at around sixteen because they can physically compete, but in the men's game, you find guys coming through in their early twenties and they are still improving all the time. They cause an upset here and there, but you only find consistent performers being around twenty-five". Hoping to study either sports science or physiotherapy, he's targeting 2015 as his breakout year when the world can stand up and take notice. "My goal in five years time is to ultimately turn pro.

It's incredibly competitive, but the fact that I'm able to contend now with only one practice per week tells me what I'm capable of, if I put in the time of a professional". We wouldn't bet against it.


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