As yet another major event comes to a close, only a handful of African players were able to make the main-draw cut—a far cry from the 1990s and early aughts, when the continent enjoyed a slice of the Grand Slam pie. Former top players like South Africa’s Amanda Coetzer, Wayne Ferreira and Liezel Huber; Morocco’s Younes el-Aynaoui and Hicham Arazi; and Zimbabwe’s Black siblings—Wayne, Byron, and Cara—all enjoyed success on tennis’ world stage, providing Africa a seat at the big table.
And then came the drought, at least on the pro level.
“When you look back over the years and you say, 'OK African players haven’t been successful,' I think, through the years, the ITF training centers have very often had a lot of success in the juniors,” Dermot Sweeney, ITF Technical Director of Training Centers and Players, tells TENNIS.com. “So, Top 20 juniors, most recently like Sada [Nahimana, 19, from Burundi] and Eliakim [Coulibaly, 18, from Ivory Coast].”
Unquestionably, the ITF has taken strides in developing players in Africa through its high-performance hubs: one in Casablanca, Morocco and the other in Nairobi, Kenya (though the latter is currently closed due to COVID). Despite the success of this development program, most of these juniors haven’t been able to parlay it into the pros due to lack of financial support.
Admits Sweeney, “When they leave the juniors, we haven’t really had that much in place.”
"There is this African Junior Championship and this is our talent ID ground, adds Amine Ben Makhlouf, development officer for North and West Africa and also the director of the Morocco training hub. “This is where we see all the top African players playing in this competition. This is from where we select players, so Ons Jabeur was among all these players we have seen since the age of 14 years old.”
Players and coaches at the Morocco training center. (International Tennis Federation)
They may, at last, have found the missing ingredient: The Grand Slam Grant Program. Introduced in 2017 by the Grand Slam Development Fund, these contributions are meant to cover some of its recipients’ competition-related costs—such as travel, support staff and equipment—when competing in major events.
Tunisian Ons Jabeur was among the first players to receive such funding, and is unquestionably one of the grant initiative’s success stories.
“Ons Jabeur actually got $50,000 from the Grand Slam Development Fund” says Sweeney. "It was great for the program, and, as such, high-profile that she broke into the Top 100 and she credits a lot to the program, the assistance that she received.”
Less than a month after receiving it, Jabeur—ranked No. 114 at the time—reached the third round of the French Open as a lucky loser, becoming the first Tunisian woman to reach that round of a Grand Slam event in singles. She improved upon that by reaching her first major quarterfinal at the 2020 Australian Open.
Said Jabeur, “I played better since I received this help. It’s great not always thinking about the expenses; I can just go on the court and play my game. It was a great moment for the help to arrive because I really needed the funds. Maybe I was waiting for this kind of ‘punch.'"
Makhlouf, who has maintained a strong relationship with Jabeur, recalls giving her the good news.
“I remember when I called her to tell her you have to be in touch with your Federation to get the grants and that was her year. Thanks to this grant. It helped her to push her to Top 100.”
Jabeur finished runner-up to Elina Svitolina at the 2010 French Open girls’ singles. (Getty Images)
Mayar Sherif of Egypt received the Grand Slam grant in 2020 and made history earlier this month. Playing her first Australian Open, the 24-year-old became the first from her country to win a main-draw match at a Grand Slam.
“Honestly it meant so much, just to know that someone out there is trying to help,” Sherif told the ITF. “It’s a committee that almost gets nothing from helping me; they are just betting on it because they believe that I’m from one country that needs some help. It gave me some mental push, to be honest. It’s really helping me a lot.”
While the on-going pandemic has affected the “highest-level grants,” Africa’s development program has managed to stay on track. When the pandemic hit in early 2020, a crisis group put together a COVID protocol that included sending players and coaches home, moving training online.
“The players were in charge of submitting their videos of the training they are doing at home,” says Thierry Ntwali, development officer for East and Central Africa. Ntwali also oversaw the Kenya training center before it was temporarily shut down. “We were able to follow up on training and created a quiz program for them to keep them in the mode of tennis. We have also been liaising with the parents, to be almost our eyes on what they are doing at home, because even then they were at home they were in lockdown, so a parent could have a look what they are doing.”
Morocco training center. (International Tennis Federation)
To manage the pandemic fallout, the ITF made a difficult decision to close the Kenya training center for at least the next year, moving the players to the Morocco hub.
The juniors have continued traveling to tournaments within the continent. Playing in Europe, however, has become a major issue due to the COVID-19 travel restrictions.
“We're really struggling with our tournament calendar, because there's just so few tournaments, getting a Schengen [EU passport-free zone that covers most of the European countries] visa now, to go to Europe, for example, is almost impossible for African players,” says Sweeney.
In the meantime, the ITF has been supporting the African players in other ways.
“The ITF have been helping some of our players in East Africa enroll in universities in the U.S.,” says Ntwali. “We are very proud to have the one girl from East Africa center who will be playing for Louisiana University. We are really proud that ITF has done all this for the kids, and have been putting everything on the project.”
Nestled between January's summer swing of tournaments in Australia, and March's Sunshine Double in the U.S., February can be overlooked in tennis. But not in 2021, with the Australian Open's temporary move to the second and shortest month of the calendar. Beyond that, February is Black History Month, and also a pivotal time for the sport in its rebound from the pandemic.
To commemorate this convergence of events, we're spotlighting one important story per day, all month long, in The 2/21. Set your clock to it: it will drop each afternoon, at 2:21 Eastern Standard Time (U.S.).