Out of Africa?

The Black brothers, Byron and Wayne. — Pic. S. MAHINSHA-

Byron Black hopes to keep his family together as his homeland of Zimbabwe falls apart.

BYRON BLACK had everything mapped out: When he retired from professional tennis, he would settle in his homeland of Zimbabwe, buy a game farm, and devote himself to his land and his family. But that dream hasn't come true. At the end of last year, just a few weeks after he called it a career, the 33-year-old Black applied for a visa that would allow him to move to Australia with his family (wife Fiona, two-year-old daughter Shawn, and infant son Samuel).

It's not that Black had a change of heart. Rather, he thought he had no choice but to find a safer, more secure environment.

Zimbabwe, a profoundly beautiful and troubled African nation, is in the midst of social upheaval. Relations between the black majority and the more affluent white minority have deteriorated over the last few years, with the country's autocratic president, Robert Mugabe, pushing hard for land reforms. He's been reclaiming hundreds of white-owned farms — land that, he says, was stolen under British colonial rule — in a process that has sometimes led to violence.

"It's a real insecure feeling here," Black said late last year from his large home in the suburbs of Harare, Zimbabwe's capital. "You wouldn't believe in the last three years how many of our friends have left."

The Blacks haven't been directly affected by Mugabe's policies. The former avocado farm where they were raised, with four grass courts that their late father, Don, built in an attempt to create a scaled-down Wimbledon, is small by Zimbabwean standards — 22 acres — and therefore not yet a target for repossession. But Black is concerned for his mother, Velia, who has lived alone on the property since her husband died of cancer in October 2000.

"Sooner or later, she'll have problems," Black said. "She's already had problems with people intimidating her a bit. For now, she's still on the property, running a day-care centre, coaching tennis. She's been there 40 years. The memories of my old man are there, so it would break her heart to take it away."

Black quit tennis last September after playing in a Davis Cup World Cup qualifying tie that Zimbabwe lost to Belgium. During his 12-year pro career, he won two singles and 22 doubles titles.

His siblings, touring pros Wayne and Cara, are also rethinking their long-held plans to retire in Zimbabwe. "I really don't know if I'm going to be able to live there," said 29-year-old Wayne, one of the world's premier doubles players, who lives part time in Wimbledon, England. Cara, 24, who won her first singles title last year in Hawaii, visits home less frequently. She and her boyfriend and coach, Brett Stephens, the former trainer for her brothers and Pete Sampras, work mostly in Southern California.

"When Cara and Wayne come back here it's more like a holiday; they don't get as wrapped up in (the country's instability)," Byron said. "I used to think, not too long ago, `We'll pull through, something good will happen, and this will turn around.' I don't have much faith anymore. There's so much corruption, and everything is political."

Black said that he has friends whose homes have been seized and others who have been slapped around and thrown to the ground by would-be squatters intent on intimidating them to abandon their land even without official permission. "They slap them so it won't produce any wounds," Black said. "But you have like 20 guys taking turns."

It has been a painful stretch for Black. In addition to his country's woes, his father kept his illness a secret and died before his children could say goodbye. Last year, By<147,1,7>ron's son, Samuel, was born missing part of his esophagus, which required emergency surgery. "His weight is still down, but he's a little fighter," Black said.

To escape his troubles, if only for a while, Black has been going on safaris with friends. In October, they canoed down the Zambezi, where a crocodile attacked one of their boats and a hippo began to surface under Black's before he paddled away. Still, he'll take the hazards of the bush over those of his country's politics.

"The safaris have been the best times, when I forget all the problems," Black said. — Christopher Clarey