At the just-ended Wimbledon tournament, two players from different continents inspired tennis enthusiasts.
Kenyan tennis teen sensation Angella Okutoyi partnered with Netherland’s Rose Marie Nijkamp and won the World Junior Championships’ Doubles’ finals 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 Doubles was introduced 40 years ago.
Other non-black Africans who have won doubles grand slams are Cara Black from Zimbabwe, and Elna Renach and Esme De Villiers from South Africa.
Okutoyi’s eight years of playing tennis have seen outstanding performances in the Karen Open, Kenya Open, East African Zonal in both Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, Futures Juniors in Egypt, Orange Ball in the US, first runners’ up in the 2018 Africa Cup of Nations’ tennis tournament, 2019 ITF women’s tour at Peponi School.
She also took the Africa Junior Champions (Under-18) last year, which she had won as an Under-14 in 2014.
After making it to the third round of the Australian Open Junior Championships in January, Okutoyi said that making history in Melbourne has been special for her.
“I am happy that people in Kenya have been able to see that and they, together with African players more generally, realize they have a chance to do the same. In Kenya, most people who play tennis are not well-off. Their families, like mine, don’t have much and I just want to encourage them and say that the situation doesn’t mean they cannot reach here, and it doesn’t define them,” she told itftennis.com.
At Wimbledon Okutoyi said: “This victory is for my country and everybody who has contributed to my success. It is to tell Africa and the country that it is possible, no matter the background or where someone is coming from.”
The following day, at the Men’s Singles Final, Serbian player Novak Djokovic, 35, after falling a set behind Nick Kyrgios, rallied to beat the Australian 6-3, 6-4, and 7-6. Djokovic won his fourth consecutive Wimbledon title and is one grand slam win away from being a men’s equal record holder of 21 titles, after Spain’s Rafael Nadal who has 22 titles.
Nadal beat Djokovic in the French Open quarter-finals a few weeks ago, but has to drop out of this year’s Wimbledon due to an injury suffered during his quarter-final match against Taylor Fritz.
Belgrade may be thousands of kilometres away from Kenya, but when it comes to tragedy and tough times, Okutoyi and Djokovic have something in common.
Okutoyi’s mother, Angela, died during childbirth, leaving twin newborns, Angella and Roselida Asumwa.
The babies were cared for by the Catholic Sisters of Loreto Convent Msongari, and were to be placed in an orphanage.
However, their maternal grandmother Mary Ndonda claimed them and took them home. Asumwa plays tennis too and is ranked 1,610th globally.
From the age of 11, Okutoyi has been in International Tennis Federation (ITF) centres in Kenya, Burundi and Morocco for her education and tennis training, with support and encouragement from her grandmother and her uncle, Allan Tola.
In an interview with a local TV station after her Wimbledon win, Okutoyi said she grew up poor, in her grandmother's house. She said that sometimes they had only one meal a day, if at all because there were days when they just had water for supper.
She started playing tennis because her grandmother lived in a school compound that had playing fields and tennis courts. The tennis coach told their grandmother that the twin girls could play tennis any time they wanted to.
They were only four years old. And that is how they took up the sport.
Okutoyi says she admires and considers Serena Williams her idol. She would like to play her and beat her too.
She captured the imagination of a nation by making history at the Australian Open Junior Championships in January and the story of her journey to the Grand Slam stage is a powerful one.
On the other side of the world, Djokovic was a tennis wonder kid, with air raid sirens and explosions across the skies of Belgrade in the 1999 Bosnian war.
The tennis ball, and the falling bombs, all got balled together, not just in his mind but in his family’s too, as it was their “only way to stay sane” as the Serb superstar has often said in television interviews.
His future tennis career became the focus of his parents’ attention, and his success became his family’s goal for salvation.
Hope despite war
After weeks of the family hunkering down in a basement, they came out and went to play in the city’s open courts.
Djokovic’s goal to “Win Wimbledon” gave his family something to look forward to.
“It was a very bad time because our country was in a bad situation, so we were trying to do everything for our son to become the champion we could see in him,” his mother Dijana Djokovic said.
Djokovic practiced, sometimes in partisan areas, sometimes at courts near recent bombings.
“He is something special,” his mother said in one interview. “I always say he is the child of God.”
In February 2008, fresh off winning his first Australian Open, and his first ever Grand Slam title in Melbourne, Djokovic addressed more than 150,000 people gathered in Belgrade to protest Kosovo’s US backed declaration of its independence, by video link.
“We are united and ready to defend what is ours,” Djokovic told the crowd, his face as big as the billboards on city squares. “Kosovo is Serbia!”
The government supports him such that when the Australian Foreign minister cancelled Djokovic’s visa in the middle of the Covid vaccination controversy, the Serbian president said he had “insulted the entire Serb nation”.
After six months of living in the war-ridden city, Djokovic’s father Srdjan, who owned and ran a restaurant in Belgrade, asked former French Open winner called Pilic to consider Djokovic, then 12 and half years old, for his tennis academy in Munich.
At first Pilic disagreed saying he was too young, but later gave in, and Djokovic arrived in midwinter, on his first flight ever, with very little money. Pilic’s wife bought him a winter jacket, and his father stayed for only five days, and left behind a crying Djokovic.
Djokovic developed quickly but the family restaurant was not making enough money to pay the academy fees of more than £3,000 a month, even with a discount.
The family turned to shylocks to cover his travel and tournaments costs.
Djokovic, known for his jokes in the tennis circuit, is remembered as a very serious student at the tennis academy, practicing from dawn to dusk, and often skipping meals to practice.
He became the top under-14 then the top under-16 player in Europe.
The Djokovic’s extended family looked in vain for someone to bank on their son’s talent. He won the third futures (third tier) tournament he entered, then the second Challengers’ (second tier) but the Serbian Tennis Federation had no funds to support him.
Unfortunately, he missed a number of junior tournaments for lack of money.
The year after Djokovic became the youngest man in the ATP’s top 100, after the Australian Open of 2006, his parents were so discouraged by their financial situation his mother talked to England’s Lawn Tennis Association about the possibility of now 18-year old Djokovic and his brothers switch nationalities to play for England.
“The decision in the end was mine,” said Djokovic. “I never wanted to change my country; it’s something that is part of me. We are all really proud of where we come from. And we’ve been through very tough times, it makes us stronger.”
Months later, everything changed at the French Open, where Djokovic met Slovakian coach Mari Vajda, consulted with him informally, and reached his first ever quarter-final, winning the $150 prize money.
Djokovic ended the year ranked number 16, but refused to be complacent and told his father to save the congratulations for “when I’m number one in the world, papa”.
Success at last
And this past Saturday at Wimbledon, 16 years after Djokovic got his big break, and after having had the singles’ breaks put on her dream in the first round of the Junior Championships, Okutoyi took a ‘’good luck’’ message from her idol World Number one Iga Swiatek to get through the Doubles’ all the way to the finals.
“I always had a dream and belief that anything and something nice could happen,” said Okutoyi.
Although she may have lost her mother at birth, it is not ghosts of the past but those bright yellow and luminous green fuzzy balls that she has been chasing across court, to serve love back hot to her opponents on the other side of the net, that has finally gotten her and Kenya its first top tennis title.
And Djokovic, still not vaccinated but serving booster shots to his foes, long having accepted the congratulations of his father, is one title away from greatness. That’s to be envied.