‘Like a marathon’: Africa’s tennis talents tread long road to success

<span>Angella Okutoyi is at the forefront of an ambitious new generation of African players.</span><span>Photograph: Robert Prange/Getty Images</span>
Angella Okutoyi is at the forefront of an ambitious new generation of African players.Photograph: Robert Prange/Getty Images

As the tennis competition at the African Games in Accra reached the semi-final stage last week, Kenya’s Angella Okutoyi entered uncharted territory. Across the net from the world No 532 stood Mayar Sherif of Egypt, an elite player ranked No 70. With a potential Olympic spot on the line for the tournament winner, the stakes were stratospheric. Over four hours later, incredibly, Okutoyi, 20, emerged with a 5‑7, 7-5, 7-6 (5) win 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, which she followed up by winning the Wimbledon 2022 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 pathway 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 its blind spot, both in terms of the presence of its nations on the tours and participation at grassroots level. Notable exceptions have come from South Africa and also in the form of Tunisia’s Ons Jabeur, one of the great trailblazers of her time, who has reached No 2 in the rankings and three grand slam finals. Sherif herself has followed in Jabeur’s footsteps, rising to a career high of No 31 last year.

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

In December, Nairobi levelled up by hosting two events, with Okutoyi clinching her first ITF title in one. Just this month, meanwhile, Rwanda held two ATP Challenger events for the first time.

Théoneste Karenzi, the president of the Rwanda Tennis Federation, says the goal is to bring professional tennis closer to aspiring players in the country and its neighbours. “We have also been discussing this with other east African nations so that, when a player comes to Rwanda, you make it like a circuit within the region. It becomes 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 in recent years have reached the highest level of junior tennis, transitioning to the professional circuit is a more difficult prospect with so few tournaments in the continent. “Juniors is OK, we are able to hold quite a number because there is no prize money,” says Wanjiru Mbugua, the general secretary of Tennis Kenya and vice-president of the Confederation of African Tennis. “But when it comes to professional events, there is more money needed to run it so we have very few. So any player who needs to get their points has to travel out of the country.”

While there are professional events in northern Africa, such as Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia, Mbugua notes that even those events are difficult to reach. “Remember, 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 come back to Africa. Those are the [flight] routes you have. It’s essentially the same as flying to Europe.”

Karenzi also underlines the eternal challenge of securing visas as yet another impediment to success for African players. “Tickets, visas in Europe in those countries sometimes pose a major challenge. Some of these young [players] have 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 often compete in front of few spectators on the ITF World Tennis Tour, each of these recent new tournaments drew good local crowds. As the Rwanda Challenger came to an end, a visit from the president, Paul Kagame, who plays tennis, generated further attention.

The tournament also invited Yannick Noah, the former French Open champion, as its ambassador. In 1971, Arthur Ashe discovered Noah, aged 11, 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 have succeeded before.

“He had clinics with some of our players, young ones, and he told his story,” says Karenzi. “A star like him who was a professional tennis player and winner of a grand slam, talking to them and letting them know that it is possible, and meeting them one on one: it is very important.”

In an interview with Regis Isheja in Rwanda, Noah likened success in tennis to long-distance running. “For an African tennis player, I 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 kid, the marathon is 29 miles.”

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

Some of the outstanding African players have been fortunate enough to receive help, with 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 of 378 on the ATP tour last year, both being invited to train at the Mouratoglou Academy in France.

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In Okutoyi’s case, though, Tennis Kenya simply did not have the resources to help fund her professional career immediately after juniors. The college system has provided her with an ideal foundation in terms of coaching and hopefully a great base for when she finishes university and turns professional.

“She was way beyond what we could provide,” says Mbugua. “We did the calculations for her to turn pro and we realised it was coming to about $200,000 a year. Even if we found that money, there were so many other things that we still needed. That would help her with travel, accommodation, but we also needed to get a coach, sparring partner. She would need physios, the whole setup.”

Her triumph at the African Games, though, has changed everything. The Olympic spot she secured comes with a catch: Okutoyi must be ranked inside the top 400 by the Olympic cut-off date, 10 June, in order to take her spot in the main draw. Between her college 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 opportunity of reaching Paris.

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