Tales of tragedy, challenge and hope from two continents

By TONY MOCHAMA

During the Wimbledon tournament which has just ended, two players from different continents inspired tennis enthusiasts.

Kenyan teenage tennis sensation Angella Okutoyi teamed up with Dutch Rose Marie Nijkamp to win the World Junior Championships doubles final against Canadians Kayla Cross and Victoria Mboko on July 9.

At 18, Okutoyi became the first Kenyan Grand Slam winner and the first black African since the introduction of doubles 40 years ago.

Other non-black Africans who have won Grand Slam doubles tournaments are Cara Black from Zimbabwe, and Elna Renach and Esme De Villiers from South Africa.

Okutoyi’s eight years of tennis saw outstanding performances at the Karen Open, Kenya Open, East Africa Zone in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, Junior Futures in Egypt , at Orange Ball in the United States, at the first finalists of the 2018 African Cup of Nations Tennis Tournament, 2019 ITF Women’s Circuit at Peponi School.

Angella Okutoyi takes part in the Australian Open 2022. PHOTOS | AFP

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She also won the African Junior (Under-18) Championship title last year, which she won as an Under-14 in 2014.

After reaching the third round of the Australian Open Junior Championships in January, Okutoyi said making history in Melbourne had been special for her.

“I am happy that people in Kenya have been able to see this and realize, along with African players in general, that they have a chance to do the same. In Kenya, most people who play tennis are not Their families, like mine, don’t have much and I just want to encourage them and say that the situation doesn’t mean they can’t come here, and that doesn’t define them,” said she told itftennis.com.

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Kenya’s Cabinet Secretary for Sports, Heritage and Culture Amina Mohamed joins Wimbledon Juniors doubles champion Angella Okutoyi as she speaks to reporters upon her arrival at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport on July 11, 2022. PHOTO | NMG

At Wimbledon, Okutoyi said: “This victory is for my country and everyone who has contributed to my success. It’s telling Africa and the country that it’s possible, no matter what background or where someone comes from.

The next day in the men’s singles final, Serbian player Novak Djokovic, 35, after dropping a set behind Nick Kyrgios, rallied to beat the Australian 6-3, 6-4, 7-6. Djokovic won his fourth consecutive Wimbledon title and is one Grand Slam victory away from being the men’s record holder of 21 titles, after Spaniard Rafael Nadal who has 22 titles.

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Wimbledon doubles junior champion Angella Okutoyi poses for a photo with world number 3 and seven-time champion Novak Djokovic during the 2022 Wimbledon Championships in London. PICTURES | BOWL

Nadal beat Djokovic in the French Open quarter-final a few weeks ago but has to pull out of Wimbledon this year due to an injury sustained in his quarter-final match against Taylor Fritz.

Belgrade may be thousands of miles from Kenya, but when it comes to tragedy and hard times, Okutoyi and Djokovic have something in common.

Okutoyi’s mother, Angela, died during childbirth, leaving newborn twins, Angella and Roselida Asumwa.

The babies were cared for by the Catholic nuns of the Loreto Msongari convent and had to be placed in an orphanage.

However, their maternal grandmother Mary Ndonda claimed them and brought them home. Asumwa also plays tennis and is ranked 1,610th globally.

Since the age of 11, Okutoyi has been at International Tennis Federation (ITF) centers in Kenya, Burundi and Morocco for his tennis education and training, with the support and encouragement of his grand- mother and her uncle, Allan Tola.

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In an interview with a local TV station after her Wimbledon win, Okutoyi said she grew up in poverty in her grandmother’s house. She said that sometimes they only had one meal a day, if at all because there were days when they only had water for supper.

Humble beginnings

She started playing tennis because her grandmother lived in a school compound that had playgrounds and tennis courts. The tennis coach told their grandmother that the twins could play tennis whenever they wanted.

They were only four years old. And that’s how they got into sports.

Okutoyi says she admires and considers Serena Williams her idol. She would like to play it and beat it too.

She captured a nation’s imagination when she made history at the Australian Open Junior Championships in January and the story of her journey to the Grand Slam stage is a powerful one.

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Angella Okutoyi, Wimbledon junior doubles champion. PICTURES | NMG

Halfway around the world, Djokovic was a tennis prodigy, with air raid sirens and explosions in the skies of Belgrade during the 1999 Bosnian war.

The tennis ball and falling bombs mingled, not just in his mind but also in his family’s, as it was their “only way to stay sane”, as the superstar has often said. Serbian in television interviews.

His future tennis career became the focus of his parents’ attention and his success became his family’s goal of salvation.

Hope Despite War

After weeks of being together as a family in a basement, they got out and went to play in the open courts of the city.

Djokovic’s goal of ‘Winning Wimbledon’ has given his family something to look forward to.

“It was a very bad period because our country was in a bad situation, so we were trying to do everything to make our son become the champion that we could see in him,” said his mother Dijana Djokovic.

Djokovic practiced, sometimes in partisan areas, sometimes in courts close to recent bombings.

“He’s something special,” his mother said in an interview. “I always say he is the child of God.”

In February 2008, after winning his first Australian Open and first-ever Grand Slam title in Melbourne, Djokovic addressed more than 150,000 people gathered in Belgrade to protest Kosovo’s declaration of independence backed by the United States, by video link.

“We are united and ready to defend what is ours,” Djokovic told the crowd, his face as big as billboards in city squares. “Kosovo is Serbia!”

The government supports him so much that when Australia’s foreign minister canceled Djokovic’s visa amid the Covid vaccination controversy, the Serbian president said he had “insulted the entire Serbian nation”.

After six months of living in the war-ravaged city, Djokovic’s father Srdjan, who owned and ran a restaurant in Belgrade, asked the former French Open winner called Pilic to consider the then-aged Djokovic 12.5 years old, for his tennis academy in Munich.

At first Pilic disagreed saying he was too young, but later he relented and Djokovic arrived in the middle of winter, on his first flight, with very little money. . Pilic’s wife bought him a winter jacket, and his father only stayed for five days, leaving behind a crying Djokovic.

Djokovic grew rapidly but the family restaurant was not making enough money to pay the academy fees of over £3,000 a month, even with a discount.

The family turned to shylocks to cover their travel and tournament expenses.

Djokovic, known for his jokes on the tennis circuit, is known as a very serious student at the tennis academy, practicing from dawn to dusk and often skipping meals to practice.

He became the best under-14 player and then the best under-16 player in Europe.

Djokovic’s extended family searched in vain for someone to bank on their son’s talent. He won the third Term Tournament (third tier) he entered and then the second Challengers (second tier) but the Serbian Tennis Federation had no funds to support him.

Unfortunately, he missed several junior tournaments for lack of money.

The year after Djokovic became the youngest man in the ATP top 100, after the 2006 Australian Open, his parents were so discouraged by their financial situation that his mother spoke to the Lawn Tennis Association about England of the possibility of Djokovic, now 18, and his brothers changing nationality to play for England.

“The decision in the end was mine,” Djokovic said. “I never wanted to change countries; it is something that is part of me. We are all very proud of where we come from. And we went through very difficult times, it makes us stronger.

Months later, everything changed at Roland Garros, where Djokovic met Slovak coach Mari Vajda, consulted him informally and reached his first-ever quarter-final, winning the $150 prize.

Djokovic finished the year ranked 16th but refused to be complacent and told his father to save the congratulations for “when I’m number one in the world, dad”.

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Kenyan tennis star Angella Okutoyi during an April training session in Nairobi. PICTURES | AFP

Finally success

And last Saturday at Wimbledon, 16 years after Djokovic got his big break, and having had singles breaks put on his dream in the first round of the junior championships, Okutoyi received a “good luck” message from his idol. World number one Iga Swiatek to make it through the doubles to the final.

“I always dreamed and believed that anything and something good could happen,” Okutoyi said.

Although she may have lost her mother at birth, it’s not ghosts from the past but those bright yellow and luminous green fuzzy balls that she chases across the pitch, to make love hot to her opponents. on the other side of the net, which ultimately won her and Kenya their first top tennis title.

And Djokovic, still unvaccinated but serving as reminders to his opponents, having long since accepted congratulations from his father, is one step away from greatness. It is to be envied.