‘Like a marathon’: African tennis talents are on a long road to success

<span>Angella Okutoyi is at the forefront of an ambitious new generation of African players.</span><span>Photo: Robert Prange/Getty Images</span>” src=”https://s.yimg.com/ny/api/res/1.2/tnlqqw3hKPAk.KjingllLQ–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTU3Ng–/https://media.zenfs.com/en/theguardian_763/59aad730b5227069740571 fc31a02e2f” data src=”https://s.yimg.com/ny/api/res/1.2/tnlqqw3hKPAk.KjingllLQ–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTU3Ng–/https://media.zenfs.com/en/theguardian_763/59aad730b5227069740571f c31a02e2f”/></div>
<p><figcaption class=Angella Okutoyi is at the forefront of an ambitious new generation of African players.Photo: Robert Prange/Getty Images

When the tennis competition at the African Games in Accra reached the semi-finals last week, Kenyan Angella Okutoyi entered uncharted territory. On the other side of the world, No. 532, was Egypt’s Mayar Sherif, an elite player at No. 70. With a potential Olympic spot on the line for the tournament winner, the stakes were stratospheric. More than four hours later, 20-year-old Okutoyi incredibly emerged with a 5-7, 7-5, 7-6 (5) victory before leaving Ghana with a gold medal.

In Okutoyi’s short career, writing 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, which she followed up by winning the 2022 Wimbledon girls’ doubles title alongside Rose Marie Nijkamp of the Netherlands. Her hopes and dreams on the professional circuit reflect one of the most pressing questions in elite tennis: Can the sport provide a path for black African tennis players to reach the top?

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Despite tennis being such a global sport, Africa has long been in a blind spot, both in terms of its countries’ presence on the tours and participation at grassroots level. Notable exceptions come from South Africa and also in the form of Tunisia’s Ons Jabeur, one of the great pioneers of her time, having reached No. 2 in the rankings and three Grand Slam finals. Sherif himself has followed in Jabeur’s footsteps, reaching a career high of No. 31 last year.

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

In December, Nairobi rose by hosting two events, with Okutoyi taking her first ITF title in one. This month, meanwhile, Rwanda hosted two ATP Challenger events for the first time.

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

While a number of African players have reached the highest levels of junior tennis in recent years, the transition to the professional circuit is a more difficult prospect with so few tournaments on the continent. “The juniors are doing well, we can retain a good number of them because there is no prize money,” said Wanjiru Mbugua, general secretary of Tennis Kenya and vice-president of the Confederation of African Tennis. “But when it comes to professional events, it takes more money to run them, so we have very few. So any player who needs his points has to travel out of the country.”

While there are professional events in North Africa, such as Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia, Mbugua notes that even those events are difficult to get to. “Remember that for us guys on this side of Africa, you have to go to Europe before you get to Tunisia, or you have to go to Dubai, or you have to go to Qatar to get back to Africa. That are the [flight] paths you have. It is essentially the same as flying to Europe.”

Karenzi also underlines the perennial challenge of obtaining visas as another barrier to success for African players. “Tickets and visas in Europe in those countries sometimes pose a major challenge. Some of these young people [players] have very little private sector sponsorship. They have no resources, so it’s about the money to travel the world, it’s about visas which are complicated in some countries in Europe and the US.”

Although players often compete in front of few spectators on the ITF World Tennis Tour, each of these recent new tournaments attracted good local crowds. As the Rwanda Challenger came to an end, a visit from the president, Paul Kagame, who plays tennis, brought further attention.

The tournament also invited Yannick Noah, the former French Open champion, as an ambassador. In 1971, Arthur Ashe discovered Noah, 11 years old, during 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 from those who have succeeded before.

“He had clinics with some of our players, young players, and he told his story,” Karenzi said. “To have a star like him, who was a professional tennis player and won a grand slam, talk to them and let them know it’s possible, and meet them one on one: it’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 like to say that his journey is similar to a marathon,” he said. “For the European or American player, the marathon is 42 kilometers. For the African child, the marathon is 46 kilometers.”

For those with the talent and hope to rise straight to the top of the rankings, their marathon may seem even longer. After her success as a junior, instead of jumping headlong into the professional tour like many of her peers, Okutoyi enrolled at Auburn University, where she competes in the NCAA on a full scholarship.

Some of the best African players have been fortunate to get help, with Nahimana, who rose to 12th in the junior rankings and broke the top 250 on the WTA tour last year, and Eljakim Coulibaly, an Ivorian who, as a 16-year-old reached number 16. junior and a career-high of 378 on the ATP tour last year, both invited to train at the Mouratoglou Academy in France.

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In Okutoyi’s case, however, Tennis Kenya simply did not have the resources to finance her professional career immediately after juniors. The university system has given her an ideal foundation in coaching and hopefully an excellent foundation for when she completes college and turns professional.

“She was way beyond what we could offer,” Mbugua says. “We did the math for her to go pro and we realized it would be about $200,000 a year. Even if we found that money, there were so many other things we needed. That would help her with travel and accommodation, but we also needed a coach and sparring partner. She would need physios, the whole situation.”

However, her victory at the African Games changed everything. The Olympic spot she has secured comes with a catch: Okutoyi must be ranked in the top 400 by the Olympic cut-off date, June 10, to take her spot in the main draw. Between her university competitions, work and all the financial challenges that come with competing regularly on the tour, she, her team and Tennis Kenya must now figure out a way to give her the best chance of reaching Paris.

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

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