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.
“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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”