“Like a marathon”: Africa’s tennis talents take a long road to success | tennis

AWhen the tennis competition reached the semi-finals at the African Games in Accra last week, Kenya’s Angella Okutoyi broke new ground. Facing world number 532 was Mayar Sherif of Egypt, an elite player ranked 70th. With a potential Olympic spot at stake for the tournament winner, the stakes were gigantic. Over four hours later, 20-year-old Okutoyi incredibly won 5-7, 7-5, 7-6 (5) before leaving Ghana with a gold medal.

In Okutoyi’s short career, making history has become a regular occurrence. In 2022, she became the first Kenyan to win a match at a junior Grand Slam tournament, the Australian Open, after which she teamed with Rose Marie Nijkamp of the Netherlands to win the 2022 Wimbledon girls’ doubles title. Their professional hopes and dreams reflect one of the most pressing questions in elite tennis: Can the sport pave the way to the top for black African tennis players?

Despite tennis being such a global sport, Africa has long been in the blind spot, both in terms of its nations’ presence on the tours and participation at grassroots level. Notable exceptions came from South Africa and also from Tunisia, Ons Jabeur, one of the great pioneers of her time, who reached second place in the rankings and three Grand Slam finals. Sherif herself has followed in Jabeur’s footsteps and reached the 31st place of her career last year.

In sub-Saharan Africa, historically few players or events have reached the sport’s elite level. However, over the past year, certain countries have made strides to make it easier for players to advance. Last year, Bujumbura, Burundi hosted a women’s professional event for the first time with back-to-back ITF World Tennis Tour competitions, and home favorite Sada Nahimana reached a final as the top seed. The tournament will have a second edition next month.

In December, Nairobi stepped up its game by hosting two events, with Okutoyi winning her first ITF title in one of them. Just this month, two ATP Challenger events took place in Rwanda for the first time.

Théoneste Karenzi, the president of the Rwanda Tennis Federation, says the aim is to bring professional tennis to aspiring players in the country and its neighbors. “We have also discussed this with other East African nations so that when a player comes to Rwanda, you can make it like a circuit within the region. It will be easier and cheaper for players to get to the region. That’s our philosophy and that’s the way forward.”

While a number of African players have reached the highest level of junior tennis in recent years, the transition to the professional level is more difficult because there are so few tournaments on the continent. “Juniors are fine, we can hold a fair number of them because there is no prize money,” says Wanjiru Mbugua, the secretary general of Tennis Kenya and vice president of the Confederation of African Tennis. “But when it comes to professional events, more money is required to run them, so we have very few. Therefore, any player who wants to get his points has to leave the country.”

While Ons Jabeur has raised the profile of tennis in Africa, there are significant hurdles facing aspiring players. Photo: Ryan Sun/AP

Although there are professional events in North Africa, such as Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia, Mbugua notes that even these events are difficult to access. “Remember, for us people on this side of Africa, you have to go to Europe first before you come to Tunisia, or you have to go to Dubai or Qatar to go back to Africa. These are the (flight) routes you have. It’s basically the same as flying to Europe.”

Karenzi also stresses that the eternal challenge of obtaining visas is another obstacle to the success of African players. “Tickets and visas in Europe are sometimes a big challenge in these countries. Some of these young (players) receive very little sponsorship from the private sector. They have no means, so it’s about the money to travel around the world, it’s about visas, which are complicated in some countries in Europe and the US.”

While players on the ITF World Tennis Tour often compete in front of small crowds, each of these new tournaments attracted a good local crowd. As the Rwanda Challenger came to an end, a visit from President Paul Kagame, who plays tennis, attracted further attention.

The tournament also invited Yannick Noah, the former French Open champion, as its ambassador. In 1971, Arthur Ashe discovered eleven-year-old Noah on a trip to Cameroon. Noah moved to France and remains the last Frenchman to win the singles at Roland Garros since his triumph in 1983. His presence was a reminder of another missing ingredient: inspiration and examples of those who had succeeded before.

“He had conversations with some of our young players and told his story,” says Karenzi. “To have a star like him, who was a professional tennis player and a Grand Slam winner, talk to them and let them know that it’s possible and meet them in person: that’s very important.”

In an interview with Regis Isheja In Rwanda, Noah compared success in tennis to long-distance running. “For an African tennis player, I would like to say that his journey is comparable to a marathon,” he said. “For the European or American player, the marathon is 26 miles. For the African child, the marathon is 29 miles.”

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Sada Nahimana practiced in Bujumbura last year. Photo: Tchandrou Nitanga/AFP/Getty Images

For those with the talent and hope to reach the top of the leaderboard, their marathon might seem even longer. After her success in the juniors, Okutoyi didn’t jump headfirst into the professional tour like many of her peers, instead enrolling at Auburn University, where she’ll compete in the NCAA on a full scholarship.

Some of Africa’s standout players have been lucky enough to receive help, including Nahimana, who rose to No. 12 in the junior rankings and broke the top 250 on the WTA tour last year, and Eliakim Coulibaly, an Ivorian who reached No. 16 as a junior and a career-high 378 on the ATP Tour last year, both were invited to train at the Mouratoglou Academy in France.

However, in Okutoyi’s case, Tennis Kenya simply did not have the resources to fund her professional career straight out of junior. The college system has provided her with an ideal foundation for coaching and hopefully a good foundation for graduating from college and pursuing her professional career.

“It far exceeded what we could offer,” says Mbugua. “We did the math for her to go pro and we figured out it would cost about $200,000 a year. Even if we found the money, there would be so many other things we still needed. This would help her with travel and accommodation, but we also needed a trainer and sparring partner. She would need physical therapy, the whole setup.”

However, their triumph at the African Games changed everything. The Olympic spot she has secured comes with a catch: Okutoyi must be in the top 400 by the Olympic deadline, June 10, to secure her spot in the main draw. Between her college competitions, her work and all the financial challenges that come with regularly competing on the tour, she, her team and Tennis Kenya must now find a way to give her the best chance of reaching Paris.

“I couldn’t sleep,” Mbugua says with a laugh. “Because I thought: ‘Now we’ve won, now we have to do the impossible.'”

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