African Tennis: The Quantum Leap Forward?

Andrew Bonani Kamanga

The US Open Tournament has been like a much needed breathe of fresh air for a suffocated African sport lover!  The 2017 US Open gave us a bold introduction to indefatigable Frances Tiafoe.   

The young American man of Sierra Leonean parentage made it abundantly clear that he had not come to the last tennis Grand Slam of the year just to make up numbers. He gave the legendary Roger Federer a run for his money.

The great Swiss tennis player had to call upon all his rich accumulated over a number of years to subdue Tiafoe. It showed that the young Tiafoe has got a great future at the top of the food chain in men’s professional tennis.

Sloane Stephens also put to bed any doubts about her capability in women’s tennis.

It is no longer just about Venus and Serena being the lonely players of African descent at the top of the women’s tennis.

As if the exploits of Frances Tiafoe, Madison Keys and Sloane Stephens were not enough, Kevin Anderson of South Africa fought his way into the US Open Tennis Men’s Final.

Of course, Rafael Nadal’s victory 6-3, 6-3, 6-4 looked comfortable enough but South African Kevin Anderson proved that he can compete with the best in the business.

As much all tennis enthusiasts and sport fans, in general, marvel at the amazing prowess exhibited in both the men and women’s categories, one cannot help but wonder why there continues to be an alarming absence of African players at such major events.

What are the milestones? When are we going to witness an African tennis player, man or woman, in the final of a Grand Slam tournament?

What is being done on the ground to ensure that this actually takes place, at least within our lifetimes?

These are relevant questions to the Confederation of African Tennis (CAT) and its member federations.

The questions are meant to stimulate debate and unravel the truth about the development of the game on African continent.

What is being done to really develop and transform the game on the continent?  Africans have made tremendous impact at international level in other sport codes. Athletics, boxing, football, golf to mention but a few.

In tennis you cannot even count the players that have qualified for the quarter final of a Grand Slam on the fingers on one hand.

Performances of Africans players at these major events are extremely below par. This can be attributed to a number of factors, the main ones being shortage of qualified coaches and necessary infrastructure throughout Africa.

To produce a world class tennis player, it is a precondition and an imperative that you have a world class coach. Do we have world class tennis coaches in Africa who are really passionate about the game?

It is really a chicken and egg conundrum. It would be great if CAT could identify suitably qualified coaches throughout the continent who can be sent on attachments at various tennis academies in the world to learn the art and science of producing world class players.

Eastern Europe, by comparison, is a hotbed of tennis talent. It seems like there is a conveyor belt churning out hordes of talented players who are highly ranked by ITF in both the men’s and women’s categories.

Africa needs to learn from Eastern Europe’s stranglehold on the game of tennis. Maybe in 10-15 years’ time, we could see an African playing at least in quarter or semi-final stages. Then we can be convinced that Africans can go all the way.

This success that CAT and its member countries should deliver, is not rocket science but a product of deliberate sport development planning and programme implementation.

There is no doubt that Africans, given an opportunity and sound preparation, can compete with and beat the very best in world sport.

The responsibility for creating a conducive environment lies squarely on the shoulders of the CAT and its member countries.

The current status quo cannot be sustained for another 20-30 years to come.  Therefore, if tennis authorities are going to make a big difference in the future, the journey of a thousand miles begins with the first few steps.

The journey must start now. The era of Africans participating and not competing in major tennis events should be confined into the dust-bin of history.

There are a number of improvement initiatives and interventions that can be undertaken by CAT, supported, of course, by the Governments, National Olympic Committees and corporate sponsors.

The time might be ripe to establish regional academies and /or centres of tennis excellence in Africa.

Regular competitions amongst the academies and exposure to international competitions could help Africans to develop the necessary skills and tenacity required for success in Grand Slams.

Wallowing in self-pity and continuously lamenting the shortage of financial resources and facilities is not going to help African tennis authorities.

They need to plan and take definite measures to pull African tennis from the current doldrums. Setting high standards and working with the determination to achieve them is not costly. Mediocrity costs even more.

As some wise elders have said, “If you think education is expensive. Try ignorance”. African tennis authorities have no excuse but to facilitate the quantum leap forward in the development of the game on the continent.

Yes, ITF can help but they cannot think and do everything for the African continent. It is really time for the African tennis authorities to stand up and be counted. It is really now or never!

September 2017
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