There’s always this lull period right in the middle of the Clay court season, in between Barcelona and Madrid, before it picks up with the latter, moving at a brisk pace through the eternal city and then landing on the hallowed sands of Roland Garros for a clay crushing crescendo. There’s a lot to look forward to and right about in the following days and weeks, but for now, there’s a lull.
First of, let’s quickly recap the last two weeks shall we? Maria Sharapova made her return to tennis, much to the chagrin of Eugenie Bouchard, who feels like she should be banned for all eternity. Novak Djokovic continues to say his fine and play like something’s really, horribly wrong with his game. Andy Murray does seem to be making some progress, albeit slowly. Rafael Nadal has been having 10 star feast on clay and Federer’s busy gallivanting around the world with Bill Gates, raising funds for Africa.
Africa. That leads right into my little discussion to fill this lull. The other day, I was talking with a colleague at work about… work stuff and as I always do when I get a bit bored with a conversation, I started nodding my head mechanically and began streaming highlights of Federer’s rather entertaining match with Andy Murray during TMFA Part 3. Did Federer fans catch the TMF part there? I won’t say what it means here, but if you know it, high five. Okay I digress. So as I’m streaming the match, my ears which have been partially paying attention to my colleague’s rambling, catch this sentence.
“So do you play too, cos I’ve been looking for someone to play with and haven’t found anybody.”
Safe to say we are planning a hit this upcoming weekend and I’m so excited, I’m literally praying it happens. It’s been 8 months since I picked up my racket and it’s not due to laziness or anything else along those lines. In a continent where Soccer dominates like President Mugabe, there isn’t much room for tennis. It is sad, but true. It got me thinking of how many times I’d looked for a tennis court while visiting various states in Nigeria and couldn’t find one. Best place to consistently play tennis is in Abuja. I used to, when I lived there. However, Abuja is akin to an oasis in a desert. In other states, you’d be lucky to find a tennis court in a hotel you lodged in. You’d be even luckier to find someone to play with. There just isn’t the same tennis culture in the African continent as there is in its peer continents – Europe, South/North America, Asia and Australia.
The other evening, I did a quick google search of prominent tennis players from Africa. There’s a decent lot from South Africa – Kevin Anderson, and Wayne Ferreira come to mind. There’s Younès El Aynaoui from Morocco and even ESPN commentator favorite, Cliff Drysdale (I did not know that). I could go ahead and claim Roger Federer now, but that might be a bit too far fetched. I will limit my focus to players who are actually products of some existing African tennis system within some country and once I do that and exclude players with African roots such as Federer, my list drops (plummets rather) considerably. It is a sad reality because there are a lot of potential athletic players who never emerged in the tennis world. I’ve played against a few.
I could rummage through a lot of reasons why the African continent hasn’t produced as many prominent players but I’ll stick with a few key ones. For starters, tennis is a unique individual sport that requires a lot of self funding. This isn’t soccer, where a player shows talent, is snagged up by an agent and offered a mouth watering deal. They don’t even pay their flight ticket to the club training grounds. I’m not knocking on footballers. Making it in soccer is hard work but it is by nature a team sport. If you show promise and are discovered, chances are you’ve got a team looking out for you. In tennis, the same rules don’t apply. At least not entirely. The aspiring player relies solely on the backing of his family or some external support system (an academy perhaps) that they luckily find. In a continent were poverty levels are sky high, most families struggle to put three square meals on the table. Any dreams of Grand Slam glory are dashed by the grumblings of an empty stomach.
Of course, poverty isn’t unique to the African continent. Novak Djokovic, Ana Ivanovic and the rest of the Serbian conquerors, emerged from the rubble of a war torn nation. In some cases, their families put together all they had to help their charges achieve their dreams. This is possible where there is diversity in the definition of success. In Africa, education is seen as the key and path out of a life of struggle. Education is the bar of excellence here. Most parents and families would rather put together their life savings and ship of their wards to foreign schools than see them off to say a Nick Bolletieri aca