The Barracoon of Badagry

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Badagry, Nigeria, a small fishing village near the Eastern border of Benin, was not in my Lonely Planet guidebook — or any others. None of the Nigerian tourist magazines featured it. When I mentioned this former slave port to young, cosmopolitan Lagosians they looked at me quizzically. My reasons for wanting to visit Badagry were not exactly clear to my fixer, Olukayode, either. But once I saw on TripAdvisor that a ‘Historic Day Tour of Badagry Town from Lagos’ existed, I decided that I would make it there.

A bas-relief of shackled slaves embedded in walls of the Badagry Slave Museum in Badagry, Nigeria, near the border with Benin. Badagry’s slave ports took Africans from around the country mostly to South America, although some were caught in the triangle trade of the US, the UK and the Caribbean Islands.

A bas-relief of shackled slaves embedded in walls of the Badagry Slave Museum in Badagry, Nigeria, near the border with Benin. Badagry’s slave ports took Africans from around the country mostly to South America, although some were caught in the triangle trade of the US, the UK and the Caribbean Islands.

Workers labor steadily on the half-finished ‘Eko Theatre’, one of six coastal venues designed by the firm Eko Atlantic to bring tourism and entertainment to Badagry and its sister villages across Lagos state.

Workers labor steadily on the half-finished ‘Eko Theatre’, one of six coastal venues designed by the firm Eko Atlantic to bring tourism and entertainment to Badagry and its sister villages across Lagos state.

Nearly 15 years prior, I had written about the launch of ‘Freedom Schooner Amistad’ which had taken a 14,000-mile transatlantic voyage to retrace the Triangle slave trade. It finished at Bunce Island, Sierra Leone, a relatively unknown former slave “castle” on Africa’s West Coast, where purveyors and merchants did business. The region was lined with these places; they provided a window into what American historians have named the ‘peculiar institution’. For a contemporary black history researcher to discover that Nigeria also had a slave barracoon was akin to Indiana Jones finding the Dead Sea Scrolls.

My plan’s only hitch: access. Olukayode — at my service courtesy of the Lagos City Marathon, which I had run and on which I had reported — consulted his fixers, who brought in their fixers, and so far, no plan. But the Lagos state government had made Badagry — the place where once-free Africans took their first steps into a lifetime of bondage — a national historical site. Wouldn’t the regime want everyone to see it?

The final resting place of chief William Abass, who was captured, enslaved and eventually, only to become a slave merchant upon his return to Nigeria. After the end of the American Civil War, slavery and its ports were abolished and Abass became Badagry’s tribal leader. It was rumored that he had 114 children.

The final resting place of chief William Abass, who was captured, enslaved and eventually, only to become a slave merchant upon his return to Nigeria. After the end of the American Civil War, slavery and its ports were abolished and Abass became Badagry’s tribal leader. It was rumored that he had 114 children.

Sort of. Two days before I left, the fixers came through, but it wasn’t an easy journey down that heavily trafficked, massively pot-holed, half-concrete, half-dirt ‘highway’ 35 kilometers from Lagos.

The Badagry Slave Museum, a tin-roofed, three-building compound with a large bas-relief of shackled slaves in its walls, stood along a wide lagoon that led to the ocean. As I looked around for a docent, shop or ticket office, I noticed that most of the ten or so people around me, who also lived there, seemed more interested in their household chores than in local tourism. Minutes later, however, an enthusiastic young man named Tobi, wearing a Real Madrid jersey, long dreadlocks and an fervent countenance, appeared. He was willing — almost too willing — to be our ‘state-sanctioned’ tour guide, he said. With few prospects, we hired him.

At the Badagry Slave Museum, youngsters, such as these, learn about the legacy of slavery and colonialization from local residents who moonlight as tour guides. According to local stories, modern education was brought to Nigeria in the mid-18th century by early English settlers.

At the Badagry Slave Museum, youngsters, such as these, learn about the legacy of slavery and colonialization from local residents who moonlight as tour guides. According to local stories, modern education was brought to Nigeria in the mid-18th century by early English settlers.

Tobi first took us past another bas-relief of ‘European Products,’ — sculpted items, such as an umbrella, a gun and two actual empty booze bottles — once used to trade for African people. Next, we poked our heads into the three little rooms: the home and barracoon of Sereki Williams Abass, a former slave who had returned to Badagry from Brazil to become a slave merchant, the richest man in West Africa and eventually, a powerful chief. ‘He was buried in the place where he kept his slaves’, Tobi said in opaque English, as if that made Abass’ participation in the trade more palatable. I snapped Tobi’s picture among disintegrating photographs of Abass and Wikipedia printouts about Abass that, someone had pasted to the wall.

The town center of Badgry, Nigeria, where a statue of the small village’s main commerce stands today. Keke, the yellow minicabs, and motorbikes are the main source of transportation for most of Nigeria.

The town center of Badgry, Nigeria, where a statue of the small village’s main commerce stands today. Keke, the yellow minicabs, and motorbikes are the main source of transportation for most of Nigeria.

Tobi next brought us to the ‘Point of No Return’ — a long beach where slaves boarded the ships for their Atlantic journey. Along the way, we saw a peculiar site: the half-finished ‘Eko Theatre’, one of six coastal venues designed by the firm Eko Atlantic to bring tourism and entertainment to Badagry and its sister villages across Lagos state. Workers labored steadily in overwhelming heat, cooled with water and Coke sold by an industrious villager who nursed an infant and an old dog, earning probably less than $3 per day. We paused for a minute at one of several wooden ‘Journey to the Unknown Destination’ signs and drank soda, while pondering the haphazardness of it all.

To be fair, it probably wasn’t very generous of me to place my New York ideals on a tourist town in remote Western Africa. A few years back, I had visited the Jordan Archeological Museum, built in 1951 on the grounds of the Amman Citadel, one of the oldest continuously inhabited places in the world. The Museum was deserted and held priceless prehistoric relics — even the Dead Sea Scrolls — in loose, plexiglass cases with yellowing, hand-typed placards. But in 2014, the kingdom — recognizing the value of its history, as well as the money that could be made off that history — opened the Jordan Museum, its state-of-the-art ‘storyteller’ featuring interactive exhibits, a huge research library and nice-sized tourist shop.

As Jordan, Nigeria is a middle-income country, ranked 23rd in the world in purchasing power. It has a lively, robust and diverse economy. It also has the funds to invest in tourist destinations such as Badagry. Instead, money flows into Nigeria, siphons out through kickbacks on ill-conceived projects by firms like Eko Atlantic — owned by the well-connected Nigerian-Lebanese billionaire Gilbert Chagoury — and literally pools in the backrooms of mansions scattered throughout. The sons and daughters of the affluent seem content with the status quo. The day after I visited run-down Badagry, I attended an exceedingly posh polo tournament at the Ikoyi Club in the middle of Lagos. As caterers passed around glasses of Verve Cliquot, Nigerian players showed off their horses, and recently returned spectators — educated in England, Canada and the US — sipped and dished about the latest gallery opening. Never mind the squalor of the slums just two miles away.

Staff watch a polo match at the Lagos Polo Club in February 2018.

Staff watch a polo match at the Lagos Polo Club in February 2018.

Onlookers celebrate a victory at the Lagos Polo Club in Lagos, Nigeria in February 2018.

Onlookers celebrate a victory at the Lagos Polo Club in Lagos, Nigeria in February 2018.

It was an enigmatic moment for me, as I tried to square the wealth in my midst with my last hour in Badagry. Tobi had wanted to take us to more slavery and colonial sites for a little more cash. But I’d seen enough. The American black author, James Baldwin, once wrote, ‘It took many years of vomiting up all the filth I’d been taught about myself… before I was able to walk on the earth as though I had a right to be here.’ I had seen the palpable legacy of slavery and colonialism in Badagry, then play out on the grounds of the Lagos Polo Club, a green island in one of the most polluted, corrupt cities on earth. But modern servitude looks nothing like the shackles of the 17th century.

Anatomy of a Federer Event

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There is something profoundly humbling about being reduced to a mere mortal after having a press pass. The only way to explain the loss of access is to compare it to the cliché of Superman losing his powers to a dose of Kryptonite. But even when Superman wasn’t Superman, he still had Clark Kent to fall back on, and Clark Kent had access.

Freelancers don’t have that luxury — or legitimacy. So there I was at the Uniqlo store on Fifth Avenue, a week before the U.S. Open waiting for tennis superstar and hero to the masses, Roger Federer, to show up for the official launch of his new Uniqlo kit… with the masses. I had been working all summer on a story that involved the player’s foundation and had one question to ask him. But without a badge, it was up to me to convince the Uniqlo PR person to allow me to stand on the sidelines and wait for an opportunity. Her answer to my request: no dice.

The various stages of the Roger Federer/Uniqlo launch in late August 2018, a week before the U.S. Open

The various stages of the Roger Federer/Uniqlo launch in late August 2018, a week before the U.S. Open

Undeterred, as most journalists with a burning inquiry that has been denied by two sets of handlers — the Roger Federer Foundation’s and Uniqlo’s — I stood around the store and waited for another friend, one of many amoureux de Federer in my life, and an “in”. Nine times out of ten, press events, while seemingly micro-managed, are ill-conceived, thrown together at the last minute and usually lacking in proper oversight. Soon enough, we found our way to the second row past Uniqlo’s ‘stage’.

The various stages of the Roger Federer/Uniqlo launch in late August 2018, a week before the U.S. Open

By five o’clock, the line was chattering. The Uniqlo promoter picked that point to brief us all: Mr. Federer would not sign items, he said (a total subterfuge); he would not take selfies (also not true); and anyone who approached him would be swiftly escorted out the door, Uniqlo Federer product orders be damned. Fifteen minutes later, we were seated, watching an endless loop of Federer photos on the video screens among three sets of Federer outfits. I overheard a mom discuss selfie-and-signing strategy with her pre-teen.

Some thirty minutes after he was expected, the man of the hour — and by tennis standards, the decade — turned up in a slim black suit, crisp white shirt unbuttoned at the collar and brass-buckle dress shoes, even more handsome in person. The audience cheered and called out while Federer looked at the crowd, swollen to more than 200 onlookers, in bewilderment — or feigned bemusement. It was possibly the only unscripted moment in a 45-minute Q&A about Roger’s career, Roger’s fashion choices, Roger’s reasons for coming to Uniqlo (Anna Wintour approved), and even some advice from Roger about listening to one’s parents. “Now that I am a parent, I can say they mean well, they only want the best for you.”

Federer proved just as much of a promotional pro as a tennis one. Uniqlo included its head of product design, just so the clothing company was not completely upstaged. But no one really wanted to hear from him, other than assuring us that Uniqlo got its “complete champion on the court and complete champion off the court”.

This bit followed a revealing few minutes when Roger admitted that he was “proud of the way I turned myself around,” answering a question vetted by the higher-ups — as all of the other questions — about the highlight of his career. Roger would not be surprised by any untoward inquiry, apparently. He offered only this: “I was once known as the player about whom the other guys were saying ‘if you hang with him long enough, he will lose his mind,’” meaning that Roger would have imploded and someone else might have adorned our Rolex ads; earned a ubiquitous logo (for which he would have to fight Nike to retain the rights); and inspired hysteria in the center of an already frenzied New York.

And just like that, the magic ended. Roger did agree to sign autographs; he also said “yes” to a few selfies. The catch: only the first two rows — or the first 20 people. That put me in the scrum — the middle of it all. To be in the pack, the throng, the mob of a celebrity selfie-signing-photo mob is to throw yourself into a crush of people, arms thrusting balls and caps and paper and Metrocards, torsos pushing, voices pleading. The girl whose mother helped her selfie strategize — all four-foot, five inches of her — was nearly trampled. In the heart of it, with one’s face in a wrist, an armpit or the back of a head, even a grown woman’s life seems imperiled.

The girl was saved. The champion signed her ball. All ended well at Uniqlo. Except for one angry security person, a large round man dressed in plaid and draped in contempt. “Would you look at yourselves?” he asked the crowd. “You should be ashamed of yourselves. Someone was almost hurt for a signature. He’s just a man who plays a sport. That’s it.”

A buzz kill. A morality check. A questioning of intent.

“I hear Nadal is really the nice one,” my friend, who had his Federer hat autographed, said. “Federer just smiles and signs when the cameras are on.” I couldn’t say. He seemed kind and generous enough to me.

“If this is true, then why do you like him so much,” I asked.

“Because look at the man. He’s the greatest player of all time,” my friend replied.

In the end, I was never able to ask my question. Despite multiple requests, the USTA refused a press pass to the entire U.S. Open. I couldn’t get through the Federer firewall, either, even though I managed to slip a written question and my email to his security people.

But as I endured similar deluges and assemblages over the fortnight, I watched and wondered: Why do people engage in these pursuits? Most players seemed almost above it all — until they weren’t. Lindsay Davenport stayed nearly 30 minutes after an exhibition match to sign and talk to fans; Martina Navratilova walked off after five. Angelique Kerber reached high for jumbo Wilson autograph balls. Kevin Anderson — after five sets in withering heat — hit his obligatory match balls into the crowd, turned around and said, “sorry, guys, I can’t.” I’m not sure I could have, either. Like every human, every star tennis player has his or her own personality type, priorities and limits. One fan asks for a selfie; hundreds of fans ask for hours. But what does this seeking say of us? That we want to touch greatness, even for a minute? That we would do anything for that slice, that specimen from a player? That our own lives lack the thrill that we associate of others? That, perhaps, these walls surrounding the celebrities and protecting them from the people, the press and other entities making requests of them only make us want them more?

From my vantage point that day, I might not ever understand. But if I ever have the chance to talk to Roger, I’ll ask.

Africa’s Tennis Dream: Black Africans are Taking Aim at Pro Tennis

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Lagos, Nigeria, February 2018. The government of Lagos State has high hopes for many achievements in sport and has started on several stadium projects. None have been completed.

Lagos, Nigeria, February 2018. The government of Lagos State has high hopes for many achievements in sport and has started on several stadium projects. None have been completed.

Adrian Margaret Brune

Apr 24 · 26 min read

Black Africa hasn’t had a player in the Top-100 since 2005. That could change very soon.

On an unusually chaotic day in the typically clamorous neighborhood surrounding the Lagos Lawn Tennis Club (LLTC) in February 2018, 15-year-old Oyinlomo Barakat Quadre hardly noticed the noise, the ball “pickers” or the other kids playing scratch tennis as she grabbed three nearly dead balls and strode to the far end of a court. An advertisement for a local nightclub “Absolut Lagos” hung over her, as she popped the ball off her racquet, hitting smooth, even strokes — playing nice with me, an older guest. Twenty minutes later, growing restless, she started to hit her angles. Then, the fun began — for her.

Shot one: return of a second serve clips the corner of the deuce service box.

Quadre had not been back on her home turf very long. The LLTC, with its Balewa-era orange and green seats, gold-plated center court signs and faded grandstand, is the oldest tennis club in Nigeria, Quadre tells me on the changeover. She serves next and upon the return, sends over two high, coasting balls that look as if they will sail out before they take a sharp drop and land on the back of the baseline. Quadre was possibly taking a permanent break from the International Tennis Federation’s (ITF) training center in Casablanca, Morocco, where she had played for the past two years, despite access to cutting-edge coaches, the latest Babolat racquets and, at the very least, new balls. My backhand falls short. Quadre uses soft hands to back slice a drop shot. Quadre wanted sponsorship — someone to take her to one of the Florida academies, pro tennis’ Promised Land. But that hadn’t materialized and so, Nigeria’s top girls player — always with her racquet-carrying father five steps behind — had returned home to find her Midas.

Nigeria’s current top player, Oyinlomo Barakat Quadri, with her father at the Lagos Lawn Tennis Club (LLTC) in-between stints at the International Tennis Federation (ITF) training centre in Casablanca, Morocco. Like many African pros, Nahimana is waiting for her dream of sponsorship or a permanent training berth in the U.S. .

Nigeria’s current top player, Oyinlomo Barakat Quadri, with her father at the Lagos Lawn Tennis Club (LLTC) in-between stints at the International Tennis Federation (ITF) training centre in Casablanca, Morocco. Like many African pros, Nahimana is waiting for her dream of sponsorship or a permanent training berth in the U.S. .

“The ITF Center has the top players in Africa; IMG (formerly the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy) has the top players in the world,” says Quadre, sitting down, sweating in the tropical heat of February in Lagos. “It’s going to be a greater challenge, and being at the top of my game in tennis is my priority.”

In the two months since her return from Morocco, there had been several meetings and many promises, but neither a bank deposit, nor a plane ticket to Sarasota, where IMG is located, had yet made manifest. Whenever doubt was raised, Quadre raised the local lore of Marylove Edwards. Edwards, a puckish, self-assured, determined 13-year-old had managed to catch the eye of Idris Olorunnimbe, the founder and CEO of Lagos-based, pan-African talent agency, Temple Management Company (the agency behind the female Nigerian Bobsled Team from the 2018 Winter Olympics) at the LLTC and since then, ‘Nigerian Serena’ has been the envy of every African junior player. The story sounds familiar: handed a racquet by her father at the age of four, Edwards finished in second place in her first tournament — an under-14 — by age seven. Five years later, in 2017, she became the first junior player to reach the final of the Central Bank of Nigeria Open in Abuja, losing only to a 21-year-old veteran of the Nigerian circuit. Less than two months later, Edwards was off to IMG.

“It’s much better to be an away champion and just win one or two (overseas), than a home champion in Nigeria and win all the tournaments,” Quadre says, her wide, dark eyes betraying a slight bit of envy when she spoke of her rival’s success. But from Quadre’s vantage point, as the sun began to set over Tafawa Balewa Square, where Nigeria celebrated independence in 1960, there was no place for her to go but up. Sitting pretty as the top woman 18-and-under in Nigeria — and among the top 25 players on the entire continent of Africa — Quadre was ready to take her place at the forefront of Africa’s fledgling tennis reformation. She just had not yet realized that pulling off the coup would not be as easy as she expected.

It’s no exaggeration to say that Americans dominated tennis in the 60s, 70s and early 1980s, but the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 brought about the Eastern European racquet rebellion. But if going by the hard-scrabble, “what doesn’t kill you…” rule marks the next regional emergence of tennis super-power, then sub-Saharan Africa is on the horizon. Black players whose African-born parents brought their athletic children to Europe or the United States to compete are bursting on the scene: 21-year-old Frances Tiafoe, the Maryland-raised son of Sierra Leoneans, recently surged into his first quarter-finals round at the Australian Open; Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, whose Congolese father played handball in France, has notched wins over Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and the now-retiring Andy Murray; and Felix Auger-Aliassime, a Canadian whose father is a teaching pro from Togo, just ran up the qualifying rounds of the Miami Open to the semi-finals and gained a spot in the top-100 practically overnight.

But what about those still on the continent? In the Open Era, it takes more than just talent and hard work to enter, win and remain on tour, especially coming from Black Africa. “There is enormous potential for Africa to produce a champion but they will need a lot of help along the way to achieve that; they also have to have that undying belief in themselves,” says Rennae Stubbs, the Australian Grand-Slam doubles champion and ESPN commentator. “It’s one thing to have the desire and talent but if you can’t travel and play in events around the country or world — or have tennis events that you can travel to — it’s impossible to get ranking points and a ranking and therefore, a future as a professional, is unattainable. So, in the end, talent is one thing but a little help is very important too.”

Realizing the continent’s potential, the ITF recently opened training hubs in Casablanca, Morocco and Nairobi, Kenya, to nurture future professionals’ ability. Players such as Quadre, Edwards and 16-year-old Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) #203 (and climbing) Whitney Osuigwe often start out there, but impatient with the lack of attention, opportunity and even equipment, eventually leave for the Bollettieris, the Patrick Mouratoglous or the Chris Everts of the non-African world. Or, like Quadre, they come home to curry favor with the African elite, the financiers rich off siphoning oil, mining or banking profits, and use promises of championship trophies to secure passage to a U.S. or European academy.

A “ball-picker” at the Lagos Lawn Tennis Club” walks past the ladder standings as he shuffles between matches. Many of the ITF’s “challengers” started as ball-pickers.

A “ball-picker” at the Lagos Lawn Tennis Club” walks past the ladder standings as he shuffles between matches. Many of the ITF’s “challengers” started as ball-pickers.

If neither a) nor b) happens, up-and-coming African players must rely on the infrastructure they have: clubs spread across the sub-Saharan continent, such as the ramshackle Lagos Lawn Tennis Club, which need a coat of paint and fresh asphalt, balls used over and over and over again, and, if they’re lucky, some well-placed family to ship precious tennis gear. “Sometimes, a city doesn’t even have a sports shop that sells racquets. If you find one, it can ultimately cost three times the price of one in Europe,” says Frank Couraud, the development projects administrator at the ITF’s central office in London. Moreover, even regional competition is limited. Although African nations were supposed to scrap visa requirements for all African citizens by 2018 as part of the African Union’s ‘African passport’ campaign, it hasn’t yet happened, making cross-continental tournaments difficult to play, compared to European nationals who side-step into the U.S., all of Europe and most other tournament countries, where they can play as many matches as they please. Most of all, the majority of sub-Saharan African countries have one singular problem that the majority of strong tennis nations have overcome: a lack of investment foresight by the sport’s kingmakers.

“The big corporations… see Africa as a small market and therefore, no need to invest,” says the Wanjuri Mbugua-Karani, the vice-president of the Kenya Lawn Tennis Association and a former top-five player in her home country. “Africa has been able to produce very good junior players, but at the age of 16–18 when they should start playing professional tournaments, they lack the funds for travel and accommodation,” — about $100,000 a year to go on the circuit. “Africa needs to find a source for individual player sponsorship and for tournament sponsorship so we can hold ATP and WTA tournaments on the continent to both greatly reduce the amount of travel expenses for the players and foster a tennis culture her.”

In addition to the political and economic turmoil, Mbugua-Karani says there exists a worldwide misconception that Africans prefer football to tennis or that it is considered too “colonist” for them. “Tennis actually has a pretty vibrant history here,” she says. In the 1970s, Sudan hosted the Grand Prix Khartoum International tournament, a draw through which ATP players were happy to sweat through while playing on oven-baking hard courts. Arthur Ashe played on clay at ATP Lagos Open from 1976 to 1980, until it was moved to hard courts and closed in 1991. South Africa, especially, was a sub-Saharan tennis powerhouse with the WTA Johannesburg and the ATP South African Open, which drew crowds from around the world until 2011. And Kenya has its claim to tennis glory from the days when Paul Wekesa, the last Black African man to advance into the top-100, took his 1992 Davis Cup team to an impossible defeat over newly liberated Romania. Wekesa, who remains a household name in Nairobi, won the 1987 Division II NCAA Men’s Doubles Title and turned pro, reaching the doubles quarter finals of the 1989 Australian Open. “When I tell whites I’m from Africa, they sort of laugh,” Wekesa told the Los Angeles Times in 1986. “They sort of look down at you. They think it’s such a rundown place, so when they hear you’re from Africa they say ‘How did he come here?’ and stuff like that…”

That all changed around 2010, however. Aside from the pro events in Morocco (Grand Prix Hassan II for the men, Grand Prix De SAR La Princesse Lalla Meryem for the women), neither the ATP nor the WTA currently come close to playing on sub-Saharan soil. “Pro tournaments don’t even exist (in sub-Saharan Africa). When young African players finally get the chance to compete professionally, they are not able to give their best because they are not used to playing in a match,” Couraud says. “I think what Serena and Venus have done in giving such incredible exposure to what kids of color can do, cannot be understated. I think these parents see someone like them and think, why can’t my kid be just like them,” Stubbs adds. “It took someone like Richard and Orecene Williams to believe so much in there kids to take them from a poor environment and turn them into the champions we now know. Look at Frances (Tiafoe), for example. He grew up at the tennis courts, only because his father was the custodian of that club, so he was surrounded all day by tennis. If his dad was employed somewhere else, would he have been a tennis player? Probably not, because getting on a tennis court and having the means would have probably been difficult for him.” The Lagos Lawn Tennis Club reignited the Lagos Open a few years ago, making it an ITF challenger event. But without much incentive to travel to the large West African country, which has been plagued by Muslim extremists in the North and an oil-boom-bust economy in the South, few players outside of Nigeria turn up at the fading stadium, unless they are desperate for the points and some easy money. “The build, strength, athleticism of Africans is sure to make excellent players,” Mbugua-Karani says. “We need the big sports brands to come to Africa. We need to bridge the gap where they turn pro. This is an area of investment potential in Africa, and I believe that the time of Africa is coming very soon.”

Segun Palmer, the manager of the Lagos Lawn Tennis Club (LLTC) in Lagos, Nigeria. “The idea of getting a scholarship and playing in college doesn’t exist here. You get a sponsorship and go pro or it’s nothing.”

Segun Palmer, the manager of the Lagos Lawn Tennis Club (LLTC) in Lagos, Nigeria. “The idea of getting a scholarship and playing in college doesn’t exist here. You get a sponsorship and go pro or it’s nothing.”

Jeu de Palme en Afrique

Certain sports, known for their elitist milieu, such as lacrosse and polo, actually have indigenous claims. Tennis, however, is the English knock-off of the medieval French game jeu de paume, which the French played with bare hands. The name of the sport come from “Tenez!” (translation: “here it comes!”) — the phrase the French yelled to an opponent when hitting a serve. Evidence of some ancient version of tennis exists in Egypt, but experts on sports and imperialism first trace lawn tennis on the African continent to the KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa — one of the main staging grounds of the decades-long unrest between the Boers and the English. Only in 1874 — about the time a retired English Army commander came out with his wooden paddle and Pierre Babolat crossed it with natural gut strings — did tennis truly become the game we know today. Tennis’ popularity eventually spread with the winds of colonization in the late 19th century as the means by which the British military powers stayed busy in the off hours. British schools, established for the sons of native elites whom the English wanted to woo, eventually used the popular sport to ingrain imperial values throughout the empire.

Almost any national tennis club in any sub-Saharan African country might assert that it was the “first tennis club in Africa”. However, only the Berea Lawn Tennis Club, founded with two smooth courts made out of antheap mud crushed with cow dung, in Durban, South Africa can back up that claim. As Wimbledon decided whether to allow women on its courts, Berea set groundbreaking records, allowing women to play and even rack up tournament titles. When it came to Black Africans, however, the colonists kept with international trends. Even before the codification of apartheid, Black South Africans were prohibited from formally playing tennis in their native country. Other sub-Saharan African countries took up the mantle, forming clubs such as The Nairobi Club (est. 1901) in Kenya, the Youruba Club (est. 1895) and the Kampala Club (est. 1911) in Uganda.

Soccer did became the official sport of rebellion as decolonization raged across the continent, but in 1968 the Open Era not only overthrew the traditional rules of tennis and established the pro circuit, but also sparked the reformation of African tennis. That June at the Queens Club outside London, Arthur Ashe attended a meeting of top players to discuss the formation of the Association of Tennis Professionals or ATP. There, Cliff Drysdale mentioned that Johannesburg wanted to host a “South African Open”. He then turned to Ashe and stated, “They’d never let you play,” meaning that the apartheid government would never grant Ashe a visa. Ashe nonetheless mailed in South African visa applications for 1969 and 1970, which South African Prime Minister John Vorster promptly rejected. In response, Ashe hit the road. For 18 days in 1971, he and Stan Smith went on a 2,500-mile tennis expedition of six African countries — Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, Uganda, Nigeria and Ghana — giving tennis clinics, granting interviews and playing exhibition matches.

Ashe took a lot of flak for it. He took it in stride. In 1973, he got his visa to play the South Africa Open.

But the man from segregated Richmond, Virginia refused to play unless seating for his matches was integrated. That demand, surprisingly, was also granted. (When asked if the controversy had weighed him down Ashe replied, “Problems such as these hurt tennis, but I enjoy my role… if it does good in the world, it is not a burden.”) Once in Johannesburg, Ashe sailed through both the doubles and singles draws before losing to fellow American Jimmy Connors in the Men’s singles finals. Ashe returned to South Africa in 1974 and once again advanced to the finals, once again losing to Jimmy Connors. Still, Ashe made an impact. “A lot of people, a lot of blacks, say I should not lend the South Africans dignity by applying for a passport,” Ashe told Sports Illustrated in 1971. “My feeling was, I had to confront them to make it difficult for them… My involvement in the controversy has been my passport through Africa.”

American tennis player, Jeff Borowiak (far left), Arthur Ashe, footballer Pele and Dutch tennis player, Tom Okker, before a military coup in Lagos, Nigeriain 1976. Ashe had come to Africa to play the $60,000 Lagos Tennis Classic tournament, Black Africa’s first professional tennis tournament.

American tennis player, Jeff Borowiak (far left), Arthur Ashe, footballer Pele and Dutch tennis player, Tom Okker, before a military coup in Lagos, Nigeriain 1976. Ashe had come to Africa to play the $60,000 Lagos Tennis Classic tournament, Black Africa’s first professional tennis tournament.

Still, nothing — neither Ashe’s press conferences, nor his grandstanding — did more for African tennis than an event, during his whistle-stop tour, at the Tennis Club de Yaoundé Cameroon, when a 10-year-old kid from the banlieue with a homemade racket started knocking back the black champion’s balls. “First he serves right down the middle past me. Then he whaps one clean into the open court,” Ashe says in a 1980 Sports Illustratedarticle. “Here was this little chocolate-colored person knocking the absolute hell out of the ball. I say to myself, what is this?”

Ashe saw Yannick Noah’s potential immediately. Even though Noah was born in France and brought back to Cameroon at a young age, Ashe teasingly called Noah “our next Great Black Hope” — and phoned Philippe Chartrier, president of both the Fédération Française de Tennis and the ITF to notify him of “a colonial subject” who could play. Ten years later, Ashe, by then sidelined with heart problems, was captaining the U.S. Davis Cup team against his former protegee, who was a French Open champion known for his off-court joie de vivre. Noah, whose father is Cameroonian, has never publicly recognized his African tennis origins. “(The Cameroon Tennis Federation) want me to say they helped me,” he says. “It is too late. I have no responsibility to a race or to a country. Just to my family.”

Arthur Ashe interviews Yannick Noah at the U.S. Open in 1983. Ashe discovered Noah at a 1970 exhibition at the Tennis Club de Yaoundé Cameroon, when the then 10-year-old kid started knocking back the black champion’s balls. Noah was born in France and brought back to Cameroon at a young age, but Ashe phoned Philippe Chartrier, president of both the Fédération Française de Tennis and the ITF to find him sponsorship.

Arthur Ashe interviews Yannick Noah at the U.S. Open in 1983. Ashe discovered Noah at a 1970 exhibition at the Tennis Club de Yaoundé Cameroon, when the then 10-year-old kid started knocking back the black champion’s balls. Noah was born in France and brought back to Cameroon at a young age, but Ashe phoned Philippe Chartrier, president of both the Fédération Française de Tennis and the ITF to find him sponsorship.

The Female Yannick?

Throne Day in Casablanca, Morocco, is a national holiday; it brings out the most fervent supporters of King Mohammed VI. But Amine Ben Makhlouf has not given the ten or so players under his command the day off. As Mohammed called for “unity and stability in times of chaos,” during his annual Throne Day speech, teenagers lined up one-by-one under the shadow of Morocco’s distinctive square-and-zellige-flourished minarets and hit balls back to their coaches: forehand, backhand, forehand, backhand, with the distinctive “windshield wiper” brush that characterizes most tennis strokes these days. “If this is the warm-up, then we are in trouble for the day,” Makhlouf quipped.

Some of the kids had come from Kenya for an ITF two-week paying camp (which helps fund scholarship training), but over the next two days, the regulars started to trickle in from tournaments around the world, including 16-year-olds Eliakim “Wilfried” Coulibaly (ITF #155) and Alex Cyrille Lago (ITF #374) of Cote D’Ivoire, 17-year-old Diae el Jardi (ITF #38) from Morocco and 15-year-old Sada Nahimana (ITF #33) of Burundi. Makhlouf’s kids had all played well abroad. His star boys had won the doubles at the 3rd African Youth Games in Algiers, Algeria; el Jardi had seen the grass at the All-England Club, although she lost in the junior qualifier; and Nahimana had made to the second round of the Wimbledon Juniors Championship, her best-ever result, climbing to her current position in the ITF Junior Rankings, preceded only by 12 EU players, eight U.S., 10 Asian, one South American, and one Canadian.

Amine Ben Makhlouf, the director of the ITF/CAT High Performance Tennis Centre in Casablanca, Morocco, had two choices when he hit his mid-20s: keep spending his father’s money on the pro tour or start teaching lessons. He went on to business school and started training high-performing kids at the ITF when he finished.

Amine Ben Makhlouf, the director of the ITF/CAT High Performance Tennis Centre in Casablanca, Morocco, had two choices when he hit his mid-20s: keep spending his father’s money on the pro tour or start teaching lessons. He went on to business school and started training high-performing kids at the ITF when he finished.

Nahimana is just plain ol’ “Sada” around the ITF/Confederation of African Tennis (CAT) High Performance Tennis Centre. But Makhlouf drops her name regularly, as in “When I first saw Sada…”, “When you watch Sada…’ or “When Sada gets on court…” She is Makhlouf’s female Yannick Noah. And like Noah, who grew up poor, then an overnight sensation in his home country, Nahimana doesn’t suffer fools. Or social graces. At five-feet, eight inches with a roundish head and a sly smile, Nahimana has a resting skeptic face — she is wary of people who want something from her, especially at tournaments. In fact, when I finally formally met Nahimana she was all business, even in the middle of a heat break, enforced for other jubilant juniors during the second week of the U.S. Open. The sweaty young player eyed me, frowned and immediately deferred me to Kassie McIlvaine, a native New Zealander, and Nahimana’s guardian who attends every match, controls her contact with the outside world, arranges her travel and otherwise acts like the mother Nahimana left behind for the tennis dream. But the 17-year-old Burundian had a reason for her solemnity. Nahimana was capping off a year of seconds: that second main draw showing at Wimbledon; a second appearance at the Roland Garros Junior French Championships (she advanced to the second round of both) and her second U.S. Open. Nahimana had lost in the first round in singles both years, and now she wanted to make it past the second round in doubles. But on that hot and very bothered moment in late August, she had nothing else to say other than“it was good to be in New York.” Full stop.

In an email a few days later, she was more forthcoming. “When I play more matches, I feel more confident on the court. When I feel more confident on the court, I feel like it’s practice. When I feel like a match is practice, I can win,” she says. “I feel like Africa is like this. We just need more exposure — more matches.”

Africa’s current top player, Sada Nahimana of Burundi, in the first round at the 2018 U.S. Open. She is coach Amine Ben Mahklouf’s female Yannick Noah — the next big thing.

Africa’s current top player, Sada Nahimana of Burundi, in the first round at the 2018 U.S. Open. She is coach Amine Ben Mahklouf’s female Yannick Noah — the next big thing.

Nahimana has what cynics might dub the “Africa hard-luck story”. Her father worked as a coach and hitting partner at L’Entente Sportive, the sole tennis club in Bujumbura (Burundi’s largest city), where he was paid $2 per hour to teach the ruling class during the country’s brutal civil war, which ended in 2005. L’Entente Sportive eventually allowed Nahimana and her older brother, Hassan Ndayishimiye, who “only had school for a few hours each day” to spend a lot of time “just playing on the courts,” she says. In 2011, Nahimana’s brother, Ndayishimiye, received a grant from the ITF’s Grand Slam Development Fund, which provides promising players a chance to try their luck in bigger tournaments. He became the first Burindian to not only play in a junior Grand Slam, but win a match in the Boys Junior Championships.

“I can’t believe it,” Ndayishimiye told BBC Sport at the time. “It means a lot for me, my country and for kids back at home… hopefully it will inspire them to work hard too.” But to keep his career going, Ndayishimiye had to not only rely on the ITF for money, but also to count on visas to play almost anywhere abroad. “That’s the quicksand,” says the ITF’s Makhlouf. As he explains, players in the U.S. and in the E.U. Schengen countries already have an advantage: they can travel across borders to almost any tournament visa-free; citizens of war-torn countries, like most of Makhlouf’s contenders, cannot. Players ranked in the ATP/WTA almost always receive a visa, as do those lower-ranked players try to scrape a living on the ITF World Tour, or who have played in Davis or Federation Cup matches. Non-ranked players trying to break into some kind of bigger league must lobby their national associations to write a letter of support. They then put together an application package with their financial statements, proof of accommodation, travel insurance and round-trip itinerary. Schengen countries will usually do a visa on arrival, but the U.S. takes an extra step: players must personally interview at the U.S. Embassy nearest to where the player lives. “Sada couldn’t play the junior Fed Cup in the Czech Republic because she was from Burundi and they were having diplomatic issues,” Makhlouf said. For a kid playing on the back courts of places liek L’Entente Sportive, Mahklouf says, “tournament directors may as well be asking for a lifetime of savings in processing costs and travel to apply for just one championship.”

These costs precede equipment expenses. Wilson, Prince, Yonex, Adidas, Nike and all the other brands associated with Grand Slam champions don’t come to Africa on their own steam, neither do the American and European agents. Babolat will send racquets, strings and grips; Dunlop will send balls; and Lotto will send clothing to the ITF Centre, according to Makhlouf. “Sponsors want to immediately recoup from their investment, but it doesn’t work out that way. We have talents here that will get to the top if sponsors will stick it out with them.”

Mahklouf has strong support in his lobbying toward affordability for new players. “If you don’t have players between 100 and 1000 in the world, a good group of players who work hard to get to the top of the game, there is no tennis anymore,” Patrick Mouratoglou, Serena Williams’ coach, told the Metro UK newspaper in April 2019. “The problem is it’s incredibly expensive already and all the players in 100 to 1000 in the world are struggling. ‘The good decision is to find a way to give much more prize money to those people. It’s not normal that a guy who is 150 in the world doesn’t make a living… So you know what is going to happen? A lot of guys are going to stop. Then they’ll do something else, they might go into a club to teach tennis and the guys who are going to play is the guys who have rich parents so the level is going to be low. Not all of them but most of them so you’re done. This has to stop straightaway.”

And there the perils of a new problem on tour: match fixing. A recent investigation by the Tennis Integrity Unit, which probes corruption within the game has implicated more than 20 players, according to the BBC — most of them from North Africa — in either directly fixing matches in places like Egypt, Tunisia and Nigeria, or acting as middlemen between gamblers and players, typically earning $200 for a $1,000 fix. Taking money to lose a match, or even a set, can result in a lifetime ban from the sport. However, taking money to lose a match or a set at a low-priority ITF Challenger or Futures tournament can also contribute much-needed capital for a pro career. “I wanted to go play big tournaments… like I was going to the US for camp or whatever and I needed money,” Karim Hossam, 24, North Africa’s great hope told the Tennis Integrity Unit, according to the BBC. In July 2018, he received a lifetime ban from the sport.

Like so many before him, Nahimana’s brother Ndayishimiye, now 24, couldn’t keep up. Within a few years, he had fallen from #780 on the ATP Tour to #1525. He now lives in Port Saint Lucie, Florida, where he is an “aspiring tennis player from Burundi, just started ITF Pro Circuit. Training… at Club Med Tennis Academy”, according to his LinkedIn profile. Much like a WTA pro, Nahimana inhabits the road, almost always with McIlvaine. “Tennis took me out of the slums, gave me schooling and a global experience. Tennis in my community. At home in Burundi, it gives people a way to feed their families,” Nahimana says. “But it is my life — I make friends on the tour. My family are the ITF coaches and the friends I meet.”

Despite her brother’s stalled career, Nahimana still has her path charted: “I want to go pro,” she says. That directly contrasts with Makhlouf who believes Nahimana should have a Plan B, otherwise known as college; as well as the plans of her fellow female Africans, Quadre, Edwards and Osuigwe, who are not only in competition on court, but also in the offices of all the institutions that give them access, including the ITF, the embassies, the management agencies, the tournament directors, even down to the U.S. Transportation Security Administration, which must decide to enforce any travel ban issued by the government. “Just like anything else, high performance in sports requires governments to be involved…” Makhlouf trailed off. “Players should want to play in the country they call home, but very rarely has their home country been involved in their development and even more rarely here (in Africa). Still, some players are contacting us to see the advantages of playing for their native country or near their native country. Some have come home; some not — it depends on the offer we give them or their government gives them.”

Cote D’ Ivoirian player, Eliakim “Wilfried” Coulibaly (ITF #62) whipping through a forehand at the ITF/CAT High Performance Tennis Centre Morocco, July 2018.

Cote D’ Ivoirian player, Eliakim “Wilfried” Coulibaly (ITF #62) whipping through a forehand at the ITF/CAT High Performance Tennis Centre Morocco, July 2018.

Coulibaly, the native Ivorian, had a very good offer from the ITF three years ago. As clouds mercifully covered the courts during an afternoon in Casablanca, he smacked ball after ball — occasionally with his feet on the ground. “I’m more comfortable in Africa — the atmosphere is as close as I can get to home,” says Coulibaly, who, at 13, had been playing for 10 years and struggling to pay for lessons when Makhlouf found him at a tournament in Cote D’Ivoire. Since then, Coulibaly has risen steadily through the ITF Juniors. Although Coulibaly has not yet played a junior Grand Slams, he dominated African boys’ tennis in 2018, taking home the first place trophy from several ITF Under-18s across the continent. “My goal is to be in the top-100 by 2019” says Coulibaly, as he picks up his gear bag — a nondescript blue duffel with two Babolat drive racquets. Of home, Coulibaly says, “I miss my parents; I miss the food. But we’re each other’s family here. We go to the beach, do movies.” Not surprisingly, The Avengersis Coulibaly’s favorite film; Thor, his favorite character.

Unlike some of his peers at the ITF/CAT High Performance Tennis Centre, who carry large multi-racquet bags, Eliakim “Wilfried” Coulibaly (ITF #62) uses a simple duffle to tote his prized Babolats.

Unlike some of his peers at the ITF/CAT High Performance Tennis Centre, who carry large multi-racquet bags, Eliakim “Wilfried” Coulibaly (ITF #62) uses a simple duffle to tote his prized Babolats.

The Cost of Competing

Dally Randriantefy is hardly a household name — even in Africa, even among the graduates of the ITF Kenya and Casablanca programs, where she once attended. Were the 5-foot, 5-inch native of Madagascar born in any other region of the world, however, her moniker might have been on the lips of many a commentator — or graced a best-selling product. For Randriantefy is the highest ranked female Black African player of the Open era.

Dally Randriantefy, the 5-foot, 5-inch Malagasy pro tennis player, who is Black Africa’s top ranked tennis player in history at #44. Randriantefy learned tennis from her father Max, a physical education instructor, and was discovered in the early 90s, by a Swiss hotelier named Nick Possa. In 1995, the 17-year-old Randriantefy bolted through qualifying into the women’s main draw of the Australian Open and lost to fourth-seeded Mary Pierce, who wound up winning the Slam.

Randriantefy, just like Nahimana, Quadre and Osuigwe, learned tennis from her father Max, a physical education instructor-turned-tennis-coach. In the early 90s, a Swiss hotelier named Nick Possa, saw her playing and decided that she would be the player to “put Madagascar on the map”. But almost as soon as Randriantefy turned pro, the pressure to earn her own way started to come. In 1995, the 17-year-old Randriantefy bolted through qualifying into the women’s main draw of the Australian Open, and lost to fourth-seeded Mary Pierce, who wound up winning the Slam. She earned about $100,000 — enough to keep going for the rest of the year. In 1996, Randriantefy qualified for Wimbledon and advanced to the third round of the U.S. Open before she was paying out more than she earned. “We’ve lost a lot of players like that,” says Nicholas Ayeboua, the Executive Director of the Center for African Tennis (CAT) and a former ITF development officer. “She might have been in the top-50 or the top-30, if her career had not been interrupted,” Ayeboua says. “Thousands of African athletes have never taken lessons from a teacher or coach to develop their natural talent, yet they still perform at an impressive level.”

Indeed, Randriantefy, who was known on tour for her doggedness, came back from the ITF Futures Tour in 2001 and reached #44 on the WTA Tour before calling it quits for good in 2006. In her 12 years, she earned $663,958 in prize money. But if several African players have anything to say about it, Randriantefy’s record will not stand much longer.

A year after she left Casablanca for home in Nigeria, Oyinlomo Quadre began emailing Makhlouf at the ITF, hinting that she wanted to return to the Academy. Quadre had found neither a financial backer nor a free ride to the U.S. She had competed across Africa and ended her year ranked 25 slots lower, now #314. Makhlouf was mulling over her return in July. “This is Quadre’s second or third time leaving and coming back,” he says. “She saw herself in the States. Someone showed her the bling and she went for it.” A day later, when pressed, Makhlouf said that he would probably allow Quadre to re-enroll. “If we say ‘no’ we could be destroying a future.” But Makhlouf doesn’t suffer fools, either. He hinted that if she left again, the door to the ITF Centre, with all its photographs of former cadets who have turned pro or gone off to play at American universities, would remain shut.

After all the Nigerian hype, Marylove Edwards came to the U.S., won a 14 & Under tournament a week later and began to tire of the ‘Nigerian Serena’ comparisons. “I love Serena, I love her style, I love the way she plays. But I’d love to be myself, just Marylove Edwards,” she told BBC Africa. Edwards is still training at the IMG Academy in Florida, and could potentially break into the triple digits in 2020. “The issue is, it takes money to put on events, and you need sponsors. If you can find that and cultivate that, then there could be more exposure in African nations, which I would love to see,” says Stubbs, the player and commentator. “I think there is enormous potential for Africa, but they will need a lot more help along the way.”

At age 17, Nahimana will have to start realistically looking at her options. On the WTA tour, she has yet to advance past a qualifier and into a main draw tournament, but college recruiters from across the U.S. will not look askew at her ITF numbers, or her Junior Australian Open berth — another first for 2019. “You have to have an unwavering belief in yourself or at the very least, someone in your life, whether it be a parent or coach, that has an unwavering belief in you,” Stubbs, “Then you have to work as hard as you possibly can and fight through times of adversity and doubt to keep going.” So while Frances Tiafoe was shedding his shirt and banging his chest in Rod Laver Arena, Osuigwe, who came to America from Lagos at age six, battled it out on a far court to get past the first round. She lost in three sets, two of which were tiebreaks. “I think the thing that separates you from the ones that don’t make it as a pro, is never giving up,” Stubbs adds.

Last February, on the sidelines of the Lagos Lawn Tennis Club, Bolaji “Banty” Olawepo, took his chair, sipped from a water bottle and thought about his career as a once-promising junior from Africa. He had just stepped off the court after training with one of the LLTC youth members, a young Indian kid, likely the son of an ex-pat businessman. It was the same tropical February afternoon in which I had my first hit with Oyinlomo Quadre. Banty, who started his own tennis career as a “ball picker” at the LLTC and worked his way from nil to ITF #1,415 with little more than sheer will and free court time, was supposedly on vacation. But not from the ATP. He had been home from Beijing, China, for two weeks and had about a week remaining before he returned to the Bai Dong tennis academy where he currently instructs the little girls dreaming of becoming the next Li Na and boys who imitate Zhang Ze’s style over Federer’s . “I was 1,000 or so in the world, or around there, but it costs a lot of money to be on tour. I was teaching in the afternoons and playing at night, and I was tired,” he says, as the lights flickered on over Centre Court and two middle-aged guys with pro-level racquet bags walked out.

Bolaji “Banty” Olawepo, a once-promising player who started as an LLTC ball picker training with an LLTC member. Once climbing to ITF #1,415 with little more than sheer will and free court time, Olawepo now teaches at the Bai Dong tennis academy in Beijing, China.

I asked him whether he would not come home, start an academy for the kids, build up local talent and competition and foster solidarity around the sport in Nigeria. “Yeah, they need me here, but what’s going to be here for me — how will I improve, how will I earn and live?” Olawepo says, gesturing around a group of men mulling at the bar, watching the New York Open on TV. “In China, I can earn money and have a good life. It seems to be the thing most of us are doing right now.” Tennis is now the third-most popular sport on television in China, behind football and basketball; it has 30,000 tennis courts and an estimated 14 million people regularly playing; the Chinese tennis market has reached $4 billion annually and the government is aiming to increase that by 15 percent every year.

Olawepo got up to leave. He’d had a long day. “I know quantity does not equal quality,” he says, adding that African players had, by far, the most heart of any players he had coached, even after stints at several academies in Dubai. “But I’m starting to like the other kids a bit better; they have more money, but they’re good kids, too.”

The Centre Court of the Lagos Lawn Tennis Club (LLTC) in Lagos, Nigeria. Once a premier spot for pro tennis luminaries, such as Arthur Ashe and Stan Smith, the club now hosts regional ITF tournaments and many games of scratch tennis.

The Centre Court of the Lagos Lawn Tennis Club (LLTC) in Lagos, Nigeria. Once a premier spot for pro tennis luminaries, such as Arthur Ashe and Stan Smith, the club now hosts regional ITF tournaments and many games of scratch tennis.

The Tennis Club Culture of Berlin

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The Tennisclub Berlin Mitte Albert Gutzmann, e.V., known to regulars as the “Mitte”, came into existence in the middle of the fall of the Berlin Wall and is now fighting the occupying forces of gentrification. The Mitte must turn its three outdoor courts 90 degrees or otherwise figure out how to make room for another school in growing East Germany.

The Tennisclub Berlin Mitte Albert Gutzmann, e.V., known to regulars as the “Mitte”, came into existence in the middle of the fall of the Berlin Wall and is now fighting the occupying forces of gentrification. The Mitte must turn its three outdoor courts 90 degrees or otherwise figure out how to make room for another school in growing East Germany.

Eat your heart out USTA. The leagues and the associations of the United States Tennis Association have nothing on the 197 racquet clubs located either in, or a quick bicycle ride from, the Mitte (Middle) district of Berlin. Even New York, which has the storied New York Athletic Club and West Side Club (otherwise known as Forest Hills), where Billie Jean and Johnny Mac — and all those others famous-nicknamed players flattened balls — can’t compare.

Located in the heart of Kreuzberg, Berlin’s equivalent to Brooklyn, the walls of the Tennisclub, or T.C., Frederichshain, take a cue from the nearby East Gallery — remains of the Berlin Wall. T.C. Frederichshain showcases several prominent graffiti painters from the neighborhood.

Located in the heart of Kreuzberg, Berlin’s equivalent to Brooklyn, the walls of the Tennisclub, or T.C., Frederichshain, take a cue from the nearby East Gallery — remains of the Berlin Wall. T.C. Frederichshain showcases several prominent graffiti painters from the neighborhood.

Another photo of T.C. Fredrichshain. The six clay courts and small changing rooms require less upkeep than the courts outside of main Berlin, but Fredrichshain takes care of the maintenance by requiring every member over age 16 to work five hours each season.

Another photo of T.C. Fredrichshain. The six clay courts and small changing rooms require less upkeep than the courts outside of main Berlin, but Fredrichshain takes care of the maintenance by requiring every member over age 16 to work five hours each season.

While Berlin itself hasn’t produced a champion the likes of Boris Becker or Steffi Graf in nearly twenty-five years, the city does know how to court the fifteen percent of Berliners who play the local circuit. The legacies will tell you that TC 1899 e.V. Blau-Weiß (the Blue-White Club) or the Lawn Turnier Tennis Club Rot-Weiß Berlin (Red-White Club) have the best clubhouses (and biergartens), coaches and clay in Germany. But the transplants who live in or frequent the former communist side of the city — neighborhoods such as Kreuzberg and Schöneberg, past Checkpoint Charlie and the East Side Gallery (aka the remains of the Berlin Wall) — prefer the no-fuss, hole-in-the-alley neighborhood joints with backyard clay courts, semi-private changing rooms and graffiti murals. There, middle-class players often turn up riding their Donkey Republic app bikes, toting a one-racquet Adidas backpack and wearing their favorite football jersey to play a pick-up set or two. Membership dues often include a grounds-keeping assignment.

When the “Mitte” opened its doors in 1989, it commissioned several of the neighborhood street artists to paint its wind tents on the inside and outside of the courts, accommodating the tastes of 200 members from 23 different nations who “have peacefully found each other in tennis, an ideal pastime. We are the club that lies in the melting pot of cultures…”

When the “Mitte” opened its doors in 1989, it commissioned several of the neighborhood street artists to paint its wind tents on the inside and outside of the courts, accommodating the tastes of 200 members from 23 different nations who “have peacefully found each other in tennis, an ideal pastime. We are the club that lies in the melting pot of cultures…”

The rules posted on the courts of Tennisclub Berlin Mitte Albert Gutzmann, e.V. The city alleges that the club has been breaking ordinances of its own. For years, Berlin administrators say, the “Mitte” has been using four tennis courts on land owned by a school next door.

The rules posted on the courts of Tennisclub Berlin Mitte Albert Gutzmann, e.V. The city alleges that the club has been breaking ordinances of its own. For years, Berlin administrators say, the “Mitte” has been using four tennis courts on land owned by a school next door.

Since the Wall went down, Berlin has become the second largest city in the European Union, expected to hit four million people by 2025–54 percent of them under 45 years of age. Developers have swooped in on any available space, including clay courts, to build more apartment buildings and townhouses for the burgeoning bourgeoisie. One such club, the TC Berlin Mitte Albert Gutzmann e.V., has been fighting for its life since a local school laid claim to its valuable real estate. To survive, the storied TC Berlin Mitte will have to pull a serious break-point: relocate its three outdoor tennis courts ninety degrees to the East. “Mitte is the district with the largest sports area deficit,” says board member Fred Bruss, adding that the association has 190 members from 27 nations, as well as students from Humboldt University, playing on its courts. “Already in 2016, the club collected thousands of signatures against being forced to close.”

Although one of the oldest tennis clubs in Berlin on the Prenzlauer Berg, the Tennis Club SV Berliner Brauereien e.V. has a new neighbor: a sub-division of refugee tenements housing migrants from Syria and North Africa that arrived during the 2015 surge.

Although one of the oldest tennis clubs in Berlin on the Prenzlauer Berg, the Tennis Club SV Berliner Brauereien e.V. has a new neighbor: a sub-division of refugee tenements housing migrants from Syria and North Africa that arrived during the 2015 surge.

Detail from the graffiti wall outside the Tennis Club SV Berliner Brauereien e.V. The club runs 24/7 in the park and is a favorite for jet-lagged visitors who pay a nominal fee to play — until a member comes along and kicks them off.

Detail from the graffiti wall outside the Tennis Club SV Berliner Brauereien e.V. The club runs 24/7 in the park and is a favorite for jet-lagged visitors who pay a nominal fee to play — until a member comes along and kicks them off.

During the Open Era, the DDR (Deutsche Demokratische Republik) had one star player, Thomas Emmrich, who, according to Martina Navratilova in a 1989 article for the New York Times, “beat all the junior players in Czechoslovakia. He beat people who beat Bjorn Borg at that age. But he never had a chance to play on the outside. They were not allowed, period.” Emmrich took his case to play abroad straight to the Erich Mielke, head of the Stasi and was, unsurprisingly, denied. He said once that he thought about defecting, but worried about reprisals against his parents, who were party members. Emmrich, therefore, bided his time for the Seoul Olympics by racking up national championships at clubs such as Tennis Association SV Berliner Brauereien, currently located next door to a temporary refugee camp in Prenzlauer Berg, as well as Berlin’s only grass courts at the SG Am Hain in Volkspark Friedrichshain. The intrepid tennis pro also smuggled in racquets, tennis shoes and other Western goods from Davis Cup events to pay for his career.

Built in 1996, the 7,000-seat Steffi Graf Stadion (Stadium) was added to the LTTC (Lawn Tennis Tournament Club) Rot-Weiß in Berlin’s Grunewald District to provide a larger venue for tournaments, such as the WTA’s German Open. Steffi Graf has been a member of the club since 1984.

Built in 1996, the 7,000-seat Steffi Graf Stadion (Stadium) was added to the LTTC (Lawn Tennis Tournament Club) Rot-Weiß in Berlin’s Grunewald District to provide a larger venue for tournaments, such as the WTA’s German Open. Steffi Graf has been a member of the club since 1984.

The LTTC Rot-Weiß, named for the red and white ribbons members once wore in their straw hats, sits amid Grunewald’s green leafy oasis, where the 16 immaculate outdoor and two indoor clay courts rub fences with the consulates and homes of many diplomats sent to Germany. Rot-Weiß was founded in 1897 and is just down the street from TC 1899 eV Blau-Weiß, its strictest competitor.

The LTTC Rot-Weiß, named for the red and white ribbons members once wore in their straw hats, sits amid Grunewald’s green leafy oasis, where the 16 immaculate outdoor and two indoor clay courts rub fences with the consulates and homes of many diplomats sent to Germany. Rot-Weiß was founded in 1897 and is just down the street from TC 1899 eV Blau-Weiß, its strictest competitor.

Navratilova predicted a “wave of East German players” when the wall turned to a pile of rubble, and her then-boyfriend, Emmrich did eventually gain a ranking of 482 — the only DDR ranking on record — but that East German surge never undulated through the tennis world. After German reunification, Emmrich’s daughter, Manuela, and son, Martin, took up the torch, leading the Armstrong Atlantic State college team to the 2005 U.S. Division II National Championship and achieving a top thirty five double ranking, respectively.

A proprietor looks out on the bier garten of the Tennis Club SV Berliner Brauereien e.V. It’s a grand tradition across the city, from the exclusive clubs in Grunewald to those of the former DDR, that competitive play earns a Schöfferhofer cool down . Whether the patio furniture is plastic or wrought iron usually depends on the class of the members.

A proprietor looks out on the bier garten of the Tennis Club SV Berliner Brauereien e.V. It’s a grand tradition across the city, from the exclusive clubs in Grunewald to those of the former DDR, that competitive play earns a Schöfferhofer cool down . Whether the patio furniture is plastic or wrought iron usually depends on the class of the members.

A fenced in section of the Tennis Club SV Berliner Brauereien e.V. The club’s seven outdoor courts are located in the Volkspark, or the ‘People’s Park’, which evolved from a World War II dumping ground. The park is just around the corner from a statue of Ernst Thälmann, a leading figure of Weimar Germany’s Communist party (KPD) killed in the Buchenwald concentration camp.

A fenced in section of the Tennis Club SV Berliner Brauereien e.V. The club’s seven outdoor courts are located in the Volkspark, or the ‘People’s Park’, which evolved from a World War II dumping ground. The park is just around the corner from a statue of Ernst Thälmann, a leading figure of Weimar Germany’s Communist party (KPD) killed in the Buchenwald concentration camp.

In the mid-1980s, in the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG), however, a seven-year old teen standout named Boris Becker began training at the TC 1899 Blau-Weiß. Fourteen years Emmrich’s junior, Becker turned pro in 1984 and in 1989, became the face of reunification. Well, he and Steffi Graf. But Graf had a better time cheering on would-be Wall smashers at LTTC Rot-Weiß, just down the street. “I would love to have done it, just to be a part of the moment,” Graf told the New York Times in 1989. On the other hand, Becker took the responsibility as heavily as the big chunks of Wall carried as souvenirs from district to district. “When you are thrown onto the stage at 17 in such an enormous way, it becomes living on the edge because every step you take, every word you speak, every action you do becomes headline news. And it became, for me, life or death,” Becker said the same year.

With the only grass courts located in Berlin, SG AM Hain in the middle of Volkspark Friedrichshain is in high demand, especially for tourists. The oldest park in Berlin, after German reunification, the swimming pools built by the GDR were replaced by a sports complex, but it has held on to the Monument to Polish Soldiers and German Anti-Fascists.

With the only grass courts located in Berlin, SG AM Hain in the middle of Volkspark Friedrichshain is in high demand, especially for tourists. The oldest park in Berlin, after German reunification, the swimming pools built by the GDR were replaced by a sports complex, but it has held on to the Monument to Polish Soldiers and German Anti-Fascists.

Pointedly, Becker didn’t become as monumental to the movement as he possibly thought. His trophies still stand in the foyer of TC 1899 Blau-Weiß. Graf, on the other hand, has the “Steffi-Graf Stadion” to visit whenever she leaves Las Vegas for home.

A perfectly manicured clay court at the TC 1899 eV Blau-Weiß with some teaching tools. Considered one of the best tennis clubs in the world, the club boasts Boris Becker as its most highly regarded member — its dining room holds his trophies, as well as dozens from the generations training there after him.

A perfectly manicured clay court at the TC 1899 eV Blau-Weiß with some teaching tools. Considered one of the best tennis clubs in the world, the club boasts Boris Becker as its most highly regarded member — its dining room holds his trophies, as well as dozens from the generations training there after him.

How one woman gave up Olympic skiing to become Lebanon’s fastest runner

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How one woman gave up Olympic skiing to become Lebanon’s fastest runner

By Adrian Brune JAN 3, 2017

The dais was up, the lights were switched low. Cameras were set back a respectable 20 or so feet from the stage for the “Meet the Athletes” press conference, ready to snap photos of athletes the day before the running of the 14th annual Beirut Marathon through the streets of Lebanon’s largest city this past November.

But before any of them appeared—before the Kenyans with their Olympic marathon medals, the Paralympians with their inspiring stories or even the marathon’s popular founder, May El-Khalil— Chirine Njeim stepped up to the podium, garnering wild applause as she did.

Njeim, a professional marathoner who cuts a low profile in every other country, is a celebrity in her native Lebanon. She’s made three Winter Olympic teams in alpine skiing—one of the country’s most popular sports—while this summer, she ran the marathon at the 2016 Olympic Games, making her one of only 28 women ever to participate in both the Winter and Summer Games. Anyone in Lebanon with even an inkling for sports either knows Njeim or has heard of her. The 35-year old made her first Olympic team in downhill skiing at age 16, carrying the Lebanese flag as one of two of the country’s athletes at the 2002 Salt Lake Games, where she placed 36th in the the slalom and 45th in the giant slalom. She went on to represent Lebanon at the 2006 and 2010 Olympics with a top finish of 34th in the downhill.

Now officially retired from skiing, Njeim started running by a “happy accident,” she says. After the Salt Lake Games, while training for the 2006 and 2010 Winter Olympics, she began jogging nearly every day to stay in shape—a practice she brought with her to Chicago when she moved to the U.S. in 2010. Once there,  Njeim quickly made friends in the local running community, and as a challenge, she and and her husband, Ron Kamal, entered the 2012 Chicago Marathon. Njeim crossed the line in 3 hours, 7 minutes, placing 120th in the women’s field.

Prodded by friends to try to break the 3-hour mark in the marathon, Njeim started running up to 14 miles per day, to and from her job as an office manager while carrying a backpack of clothes. In 2015, her dedication paid off when she finished the Chicago Marathon in 2 hours, 46 minutes—good enough for 29th place in the women’s field. A month after Chicago, Njeim ran the 2015 Beirut Marathon in 2:49:23.

Her next step? To run the 2016 Houston Marathon in January and break 2 hours, 45 minutes—the women’s qualifying time to make an Olympic team for Lebanon. She finished Houston in 2:44:14, a time that not only earned her a berth on the 2016 Olympic team, but also broke her own Lebanese national record and made her the first woman in her country history’s to run an automatic Olympic qualifying time in track and field.

“Rio was a victory race for me—it was so hard just to get there,” Njeim told Excelle Sports. “I was standing at the start and seeing all my Olympic heroes—I felt like I knew them. I enjoyed every single moment of it.”

In Rio, Njeim ran 2 hours, 51 minutes—good for 109th place. While she was disappointed, she can realize that she’s come a long way since deciding to run her first marathon only four years prior to her running debut at the Games.

“I try not to think about the things I cannot control,” she said. “There is a new road every day. You just have to keep your head up.”

As a elite athlete since 16, Njeim has had years of practice on how to keep her head up and persevere, especially in a country like Lebanon where support for female athletes is limited if not nonexistent.

“If I didn’t have my parents supporting me when I was skiing, I could not have left Lebanon to do what I did,” said Njeim, who began skiing at age 3 near her family’s home in Beirut before moving to France and then Salt Lake City to train. “Sports has never been the biggest thing in Lebanon—it’s not the first focus. Unless you say I want to be a doctor or a lawyer, people don’t understand that you’re actually running for a career.”

In Chicago, Njeim has had to make sacrifices for her running too, which wasn’t lost on the local community. “Chirine was known as the ‘girl with the backpack’ around Chicago because she would run to and from work,” said Dr. Loryn Kromrey, an anesthesiologist and competitive U.S. distance runner who trains with Njeim in Chicago. “She even ran with her computer in her backpack because she needed it for work.”

While running marathons has become popular in many Western countries, where the distance also has recreational appeal, the sport has only, at best, a nascent following in the Middle East. Instead, the region tends to excel in those Olympic sports like fencing and martial arts that have ancient cultural roots. Distance running has recently become more popular in Lebanon, though, thanks in part to the Beirut Marathon Association (BMA). Former runner and philanthropist May El-Khalil founded the BMA in 2003, not only to help further the sport of distance running in the country, but also to use events to help counter the country’s inflamed religious divisions and political impasses that have existed since the end of the Civil War in 1990. In 2005, the BMA organized  a “United We Run” race to help foment unity after the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. It attracted 60,000 runners.The Beirut marathon now has the endorsement of the International Association of Athletic Federations (IAAF), whose president, Lord Sebastian Coe, a former Olympic track star, came to oversee the running of the race in November.

While Njeim now has to pick and chose which races she runs in order to keep her body fresh, she says she likes to run the Beirut Marathon where she can use her stature as a national celebrity to help raise awareness about the need for more Lebanese Olympic-level runners—and athletes of all kinds.

“The way I see it, going to the Olympics was great, but I want to make history in the Middle East, to be an ambassador for the sport,” Njeim said. “The Beirut Marathon has been doing an amazing job of promoting running and pulling people together through running. It’s not so much about getting women into the sport anymore—things have changed with the new generation. Now, we just need the promotion of our own elite athletes. It makes me so proud to say that I am from Lebanon and that I believe that we can achieve greatness in running, that we just need support.”

With the Tokyo Olympics less than four years away and counting, Njeim has her work cut out for her. At this year’s Beirut Marathon in November, she finished just under two hours, 54 minutes, placing among the elite women. That’s fast, but it might not be fast enough. Although the IAAF won’t announce the qualifying times for the 2020 Olympics until at least next year, Njeim would have to shave at least 30 minutes off her time in Beirut to medal in the Olympics and 20 minutes off her Rio time to place in the top 20.

“In skiing, you really have to be focused—you have one minute to forget about everything and get down the hill as fast as possible,” Njeim said. “When I started running, I came out of the gate so fast, I had to learn to be patient and not look for the same intensity or adrenalin rush. But it’s so motivating to see how people react. You run fast, good things happen.”