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On 20 March 2024, in the sweltering heat of the newly minted Borteyman Sports Complex tennis courts, a resounding triumph was etched in the annals of Kenyan sports history. Angella Okutoyi cemented her place in the pantheon of champions by clinching Kenya’s first gold medal in 46 years at the African Games. In a display of sheer skill and determination, Okutoyi triumphed over Egypt’s Lamis Alhussein Abdel Aziz with a commanding 6-4, 6-2 victory in the women’s singles final, securing her ticket to the prestigious Olympic Games set to grace the city of Paris, France, this July.

Okutoyi, currently ranked 532 on the ATP ranking for top tennis talent, had already stunned the No.1 seed Mayar Sherif of Egypt in the semis, indicating the fierce competition in the women’s game. “It’s an incredible feeling to bring home the gold for Kenya,” said Okutoyi, beaming with pride. “I’ve worked hard to get to this point, and I’m grateful for the support of my family, coaches, and the entire country.” Okutoyi’s victory marks a significant milestone for Kenya, which over the past 25 years has struggled to make a mark in tennis on the international stage. The win also highlights the growing talent and potential of African players in the sport. 

Okutoyi’s historic victory is not only the crowning achievement of a young tennis prodigy but she is also indicative of the evolving landscape of African sports. As the continent continues to produce world-class athletes and break new ground on the global stage, Okutoyi’s triumph is a demonstration of hope and resilience for many young athletes across Africa and beyond.

Days of yore

The Kenya Lawn Tennis Association (KLTA) reached a remarkable milestone in 2022 – its centenary. Tennis in Kenya is a legacy of British settlers who sowed the seeds of the sport in the country. The sport – in both the singles and doubles formats – is often overlooked yet it forms part of Kenya’s sporting heritage that transcends the African borders.   

The game of tennis – a name with roots in the French word tenez – spans continents, beckoning players to “hold!”, “receive!”, or “take!” the challenge posed by an opponent’s impending serve. 

The first grassy arenas for lawn tennis emerged on the Laikipia plains in Kenya’s heartland in the early 1920s. What began as leisurely exchanges had evolved into a pulsating force by the 1960s, as clubs threw open their gates to riveting contests and electrifying events. The game’s journey converged with pivotal moments in time. In 1965, Pashuma Sharif’s prowess shone like a bronze medal at the All Africa Games, laying the foundation of Kenya’s burgeoning tennis talent. In the same games, Saeed Cockar and Yashvin Shretta won silver in the doubles’ game. 

The year 1968 resonated with Yashvin Shretta’s spirited presence in the Mexico Olympic Games – an exhibition of skill that would vault him to the helm of Kenya’s national tennis hierarchy in 1970, before he faded into obscurity.

The Ashe era

The early 1970s ushered in a captivating era as tennis luminaries, including the legendary Arthur Ashe, graced Nairobi’s courts during a memorable African tennis exhibition tour. This moment ignited a spark that propelled Kenya’s Lawn Tennis Association on an inspiring trajectory. The journey culminated in Kenya’s entry into the All-Africa Tennis Championships in Cairo. Aasif Yusuf Karim became a central figure in this story, clinching a coveted bronze and booking his place in the game’s history. Notably, Karim later shifted his focus to cricket and even captained Kenya’s national cricket team in 1999, a testament to his all-round sports talent.

The transformative year of 1975 witnessed Kenya make its debut on the international tennis stage in the Davis Cup. This prestigious event, synonymous with team dynamics in tennis, welcomed Kenya’s tricolour into the tapestry of tennis history.

In the same decade, the women’s game was in its ascendancy. Enter Jane Davies-Doxzon and Susan Wakhungu who won Gold and Silver medals respectively at the 1978 All-Africa Games held in Algiers, Algeria. The two ladies crowned their outing with a doubles’ win at the same games. Wakhungu was the first Kenyan female player to feature in the International Tennis Federation’s Junior Championships at Wimbledon in 1978. 

As the world prepared to embrace the vibrant 1980s in both local and international sports, Kenya witnessed the emergence of a tennis prodigy who would etch his name in the country’s sports history. Paul Wekesa, a name synonymous with excellence on the court, burst onto the scene, captivating the hearts of tennis aficionados both at home and abroad.

The turning point in Wekesa’s career came when Kenya had the honour of hosting the prestigious 4th All-Africa Games in 1987. It was on the celebrated courts of Nairobi that Wekesa’s brilliance shone, earning him a coveted Bronze medal in the fiercely contested men’s singles event. This momentous achievement propelled him onto the international stage and the ATP rankings.

In the years that followed, Paul Wekesa embarked on a remarkable journey through the highly competitive ATP circuit. Between 1988 and 1991, he made his mark on the tennis history books by clinching an impressive three doubles titles. His relentless pursuit of excellence and unwavering dedication to his craft earned him a reputation as a formidable force on the doubles court.

The pinnacle of Wekesa’s career came in 1992 when he reached the quarter-finals of the prestigious Australian Open. His electrifying performances and indomitable spirit captured the imagination of tennis enthusiasts around the world. Wekesa’s journey from a promising talent to a global tennis icon was powered by a unique combination of exceptional skill and unyielding determination.

For the better part of a decade, Paul Wekesa proudly represented the Kenyan flag in the Davis Cup. His commitment to the national team, along with his outstanding performances, left an indelible mark on the sport in Kenya. He was not merely a player but a symbol of pride and a yardstick for aspiring tennis players across the nation.

As the years passed, Wekesa transitioned gracefully from the court to the coaching arena. His wealth of experience and deep understanding of the game made him the natural choice to lead the Kenya national team. Under his guidance, the team continued to flourish, nurturing a new generation of tennis talents.

In recognition of his exceptional contributions to Kenyan tennis, Paul Wekesa was honoured with a place in the Sports Personality of the Year Awards Hall of Fame in 2007. This accolade cemented his legacy as one of Kenya’s finest sportsmen, an embodiment of dedication, perseverance, and unwavering passion for the game.

Paul Wekesa’s journey through the world of tennis is testimony to the power of talent, hard work, and perseverance. As we reflect on his illustrious career, we celebrate a true icon who continues to inspire generations of tennis enthusiasts in Kenya and beyond. 

Emerging talent and global aspirations

Fast forward to 2021 when the International Tennis Federation (ITF) orchestrated a sweeping transformation in the tennis landscape of Eastern and Central Africa. The ITF’s audacious goal to nurture 120 million tennis players globally by 2030 found its champion in Thierry Ntwali, the ITF’s dedicated Development Officer for East and Central Africa. Ntwali’s contribution has the potential to redefine the narrative of African tennis.

A cornerstone of this strategy involves establishing training hubs within Africa itself. From the vibrant streets of Nairobi, Kenya, to the culturally rich enclave of Casablanca, Morocco, these hubs have emerged as nurturing grounds for local talent. Young homegrown athletes now have access to world-class coaching and resources, offering them a brighter future in tennis.

This initiative not only presents transformative opportunities for African players but also underscores the ITF’s commitment to foster genuine growth within the sport. The global custodians of tennis have recognised that within the heart of Africa lies a wellspring of potential that can reshape the international tennis landscape. The prominence of players with African backgrounds in the tennis arena lends credibility to these growth prospects. Figures like Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, whose Congolese heritage grounds him in the continent’s rich culture, and Frances Tiafoe, who carries the legacy of Sierra Leonean parents while representing the US, epitomise the global nature of the game and its potential to transcend borders.

Over the past three years, the East and Central Africa region has witnessed the emergence of a prodigious talent that has set the tennis world abuzz, with Kenyan dynamo Angella Okutoyi emerging as one of the brightest stars on the horizon. Her meteoric rise culminated at the pinnacle of achievement in 2022 at the hallowed Wimbledon grounds. She set her mark, becoming the first Kenyan to clinch a Grand Slam title by triumphing in the junior doubles category alongside her partner, Dutch sensation Rose-Marie Nijkamp.

Earlier in 2022, Okutoyi had graced the courts of the Australian Open, where she displayed her prowess by securing a Grand Slam victory in the junior singles category. Although her journey in the main event was brief, her indomitable spirit left an indelible mark on the global tennis stage.

As we bear witness to the evolving landscape of African tennis, Angella Okutoyi’s story shows that the game is taking root in the East and Central Africa region. With the ITF’s unwavering support and visionary approach, these budding talents are poised to disrupt the traditional order of international tennis.

Moroccan Ons Jabeur is another shining star that made it to the Grand Slam finals at the US and Wimbledon Opens in 2022 and 2023. Currently ranked 7th in the women’s World Tennis Association (WTA) rankings, Jabeur represents Africa’s best prospect of winning a Grand Slam title in the women’s game. 

ITF’s role in shaping African tennis

The ITF stands as a guiding force in the world of tennis, overseeing the sport’s diverse dimensions, from traditional court battles to the sandy shores of beach tennis and the inspiring arena of wheelchair tennis. Central to the ITF’s mission is the pursuit of development and growth, and Kenya and Africa serve as fertile grounds for nurturing these aspirations.

The ITF’s commitment to nurturing tennis talent encompasses national programmes like the Junior Tennis Initiative and the National Training Centres (NTC) Network and Recognition Programmes. These initiatives provide essential foundations for countries aiming to cultivate top-tier players. By fortifying these foundational programmes, the ITF equips nations with the tools needed to guide the next generation of tennis stars.

The ITF’s initiatives span the continent and it remains a steadfast supporter of players as they ascend the ranks. International Touring Teams, Junior Player Grants, and Grand Slam Player Grants converge to provide crucial support for athletes who dare to dream beyond their horizons. These programmes serve as vital stepping stones, bridging the gap between regional prowess and international acclaim.

Tribulations and paths to glory

Yet the path to tennis glory in Kenya and in Africa is not without hurdles. A glaring lack of infrastructure, training facilities, and even basic equipment such as good quality rackets and proper training gear has persistently hindered the growth of young tennis talents. Kenya, in particular, faces challenges due to the competing demands for public spaces, making investments in tennis courts and facilities a challenge that needs to be overcome.

Furthermore, the lack of exposure and limited opportunities to participate in diverse tournaments have curtailed the growth potential of players. Skill refinement thrives in the crucible of competition and exposure to different playing styles. Expanding avenues for participation and exposure is paramount in ensuring the holistic development of African tennis talent.

Linda Serena Machimbo (any guesses why her middle name is Serena?) was filmed in 2020 playing on an uneven surface with a broken net. However, her passion and drive to play the game attracted the assistance of TennisAid. Archysport reports that players like Linda Machimbo show a lot of heart and raw talent no matter where they are, poor conditions notwithstanding. Martin Rocca notes that such players adapt to what is out there and play. 

Success and social transformation

March 2023 saw the picturesque shores of Malindi, Kenya, play host to a historic sporting event that attracted players from across the East African tennis scene. The inaugural East African Beach Tennis tournament, held at the scenic Buntwani Waterfront Park, marked a significant milestone in the region’s tennis calendar. Organised under the auspices of the National Olympic Committee – Kenya, this event wasn’t just about competition; it was about fostering talent, creating opportunities, and propelling the sport to new heights.

The tournament offered an exciting platform for tennis players from Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda, and Sudan, and even a special invitee from Spain, to showcase their skills and compete for top honours. It demonstrated the unifying power of sport, as athletes from diverse backgrounds came together to battle it out on the sun-kissed sands of Malindi.

At its core, this event was about more than just victory; it was about development. By giving players the chance to earn ranking points and gain invaluable exposure, the tournament bolstered the growth of beach tennis in the region. 

Beach tennis was officially recognised by the ITF in 2010 and has emerged as a promising avenue for the sport’s expansion.

The sandy courts of Malindi bore witness to fierce rallies, quick reflexes, and thrilling matches, all set against the backdrop of the Indian Ocean’s gentle waves. It was a spectacle that enthralled tennis enthusiasts and served as a nurturing ground for future players across East Africa.

As the sun set on the tournament’s final day, it was clear that the inaugural East African Beach Tennis tournament had left an indelible mark on the region’s tennis landscape. It was a celebration of the sport’s potential to bridge talent gaps, create opportunities, and unite nations in the pursuit of athletic excellence.

Initiatives for a brighter future

Initiatives such as Tennis4Africa, which focuses on providing basic tennis training equipment and facilities to school children, offer a path that can be replicated and supported by both public and private entrepreneurs. Professional tennis platform SportsProConnect facilitates connections between sports coaches, academies, and players, while also offering tennis-friendly holiday sites and travel options. 

Overseen by the Kenya Secondary Schools Sports Association (KSSSA), Kenya’s Secondary Schools Games have in recent years emerged as a vital incubator for the nation’s rising sports stars. These games provide a fertile ground where young athletes cultivate their talents, define their identities, and announce their presence on the national sports scene. While the competition spans a wide array of sports, team disciplines like football, rugby, basketball, and volleyball have traditionally taken centre stage, attracting passionate fans and talent scouts alike.

Doubles tennis could gain significant prominence within this thriving sports arena. In the bustling school grounds, tennis courts can provide the enthusiasm and talent, propelling doubles tennis into the spotlight. With its unique blend of strategy, teamwork, and individual brilliance, doubles tennis can help capture the imagination of aspiring athletes, showcase their skills and the essence of teamwork and camaraderie.

With an eye to the future, competitions such as the KSSSA’s Games continue to inspire hope for young athletes, whether on the rugby field, basketball court, or hockey field, affirming Kenya’s potential on the global sports stage. The courts of Kenya and Africa are not just fields of play; they are canvases upon which the ITF paints a vibrant future for tennis – one where challenges are surmounted, talent flourishes, and the world takes notice of the burgeoning stars of the sport.

Lessons from down south – Tennis South Africa’s blueprint

Tennis South Africa (TSA) embraces a simple yet powerful vision: “To see someone play tennis somewhere every day”. In the African context, South African players have achieved remarkable success. Notable names include former World No. 3 Amanda Coetzer, Wayne Ferreira, Kevin Curren (Africa’s last Grand Slam men’s singles finalist), and Johan Kriek, who secured back-to-back Australian Open titles in the 1980s.

Tennis SA has set itself clear objectives to achieve by 2024, including becoming one of the top five most popular sports in South Africa, engaging over 50,000 active members, and having at least three players in the top 200 ATP rankings along with more than four players in each of the ITF Top 100 singles rankings.

One of TSA’s shining stars is Lloyd Harris, who has reached a career-high ATP ranking of 31 and currently holds the 177th position. He symbolises the hope of the continent and the benefits of meticulous planning and robust mentorship programmes for both players and coaches. The blueprint TSA has created could be embraced by other tennis federations across Africa to usher in an era of unprecedented success for the continent.

A prime example of a nation that could benefit from this approach is Kenya, where the Lawn Tennis Association is striving to expand the game’s footprint within its borders.

Tennis: A sport for social impact

Tennis is inherently an individual sport, one that appeals to the sporty individuals within the community. With its universal appeal, tennis has the potential to bridge social gaps, inspire the youth, and create pathways for positive transformation. It can also foster social impact by its accessibility. A sport that requires little equipment and can be played on a variety of surfaces, tennis could be an open invitation for individuals from diverse backgrounds. From bustling cities to remote villages, tennis courts could serve as unifying spaces where people gather, share experiences, and build connections that transcend social divisions.

However, Kenya faces a challenge when it comes to availability and condition of tennis facilities. The limited playing spaces, coupled with accessibility issues and poor maintenance, are hurdles that must be overcome.

In Kenya, tennis was historically a recreational sport rather than a competitive one. But this has changed over the years, with many sports academies and facilities looking for a place to grow the game. Attempts by the Kenya Lawn Tennis Association to open two public tennis courts at the Kasarani sports complex have not been successful. The sports complex is currently under renovation and we hope tennis will be among the sports disciplines included in the new set up.  

To truly unlock Kenya’s tennis potential, deliberate investments by city and county governments are imperative. By upgrading existing facilities and making them more accessible, we can pave the way for budding talent to flourish. Initiatives such as Tennis4Africa, ITF Junior tournaments, and even beach tennis, offer great opportunities for nurturing future stars.

Victories like Agnella Okutoyi’s are about more than just the accolades; they’re about inspiring a new generation of tennis enthusiasts to take up the sport. Kenya stands on the cusp of a golden era in tennis but this hinges on the country’s sports authorities making substantial investments and having a steadfast commitment and dedication to fostering talent at all levels.