Kevin Curren will play his first Grand Slam singles final Sunday at Wimbledon. Although he has been listed in the world's top 10 for almost two years, his name is not exactly a household word.
There are two reasons for his relative obscurity. He was born and raised in South Africa and he seldom plays on any surfaces other than grass, cement and indoor.
He grew up in Durban, the heart of South Africa's sugar cane industry, and learned to play on fast, hard courts. With no slow dirt courts around to force him to develop solid, fluid ground strokes, his game is centered around a powerful serve and finishing volley.
Before Curren became a naturalized American citizen two months ago, he faced closed doors in many countries because of his native country's apartheid policy. Like his fellow South African athletes in other sports, he had only a small list of possibilites.
Japan would not accept a South African athlete. No Middle Eastern country would accept his visa application, and even some European countries said no. He was thus forced to make his mark in the United Sates, Britain, Australia and his native South Africa.
Finally, he tired of the inconvenience and became a U.S. citizen, though British nationality was an equal possibility.
The Americanization of Curren was very similar to that of Sydney Maree, a black South African-born track star. Both attended American universities -- Maree went to Villanova and Curren to Texas. Both excelled in NCAA competition. Curren won the 1978 NCAA singles title. Maree is married to an American, Curren is engaged to one.
The quick cement courts at Texas required the same physical skills as the brown grass at Wimbledon. Curren served 17 aces against Jimmy Connors in Friday's semifinal and I will be surprised if he is under a dozen against Boris Becker Sunday.
The 6-foot 3-inch, 170-pound Curren is a wristy player. He holds his rackets cocked up in front of his chest and swats the ball rather than hitting through. The ball is on his racket strings but a short time.
His grip is Continental, but his hand is atop rather than aside the handle. Like many other players with this grip, he is liable to miss balls struck with top spin and down-the-line shots are difficult. But the ability to execute practically the entire range of shots with this one grip is an acceptable convenience.
Curren dislikes long rallies of, say, 10 hits or more. He usually will attempt to force the issue if a point goes this long. He seldom enters a clay court event without admitting his playing style and his tall, slim build "are not suited to moving about on dirt courts."
His doubles record is solid, partnering fellow Texas alumnus Steve Denton. They won the U.S. Open title in 1982. This Texas connection also brought him into contact with Warren Jacques, his Australian-born, Dallas-based coach.
Jacques has never tried to tamper with Curren's strokes. "My primary value has been to get him to believe in himself," Jacques said. "So much of winning big tournaments against the best players is self-confidence. For a long time he didn't believe he was in the same class as McEnroe, Connors and Lendl. Now he thinks that on a fast court he can beat anybody on the day and put it together to win the whole bloody thing."
Denton, who also is coached by Jacques, agrees. "Kevin always could beat one of the big guys every once in a while, but he was never convinced he could do it seven times in a row. But everybody is vulnerable now. Look at this Wimbledon. All the top seeds must look bad doing it. That makes the guys in the middle think they've got a chance."
Should Curren win Sunday he will be the most unsung Wimbledon champion since World War II. His high world ranking of nine is due more to a string of quarterfinal and semifinal appearances than tournament victories. His ATP tournament average in the high 40s is only a quarter of McEnroe's 170.
However he fares on Wimbledon's Centre Court, Curren should have proven to himself that he is a better player than he thought two weeks ago. At 27, he has another five good years to sustain his new status.
Connors has already thrown down a challenge to Curren. While acknowledging that Curren served well, he also said, "We'll see if he can back it up in 2 1/2 months in New York (at the U.S. Open). If he can't then we'll know he was maybe just another player who hit a hot streak."