Arthur Ashe and Tennis Development in Africa

by Sadiq A. Abdullahi

We dedicate the month of February to mark the achievements and contributions of African-Americans in the struggle for equality, access, human rights, civil rights, and economic empowerment. The dedication initially began in 1926 for the second week of February and later in 1976 expanded into a month long celebration. Out of the 300 million Americans living today, there are over 40 million African-Americans. This represents more than 13 percent of the total population. As an African-American, I would like to dedicated this piece on Arthur Ashe, the legendary tennis player, who inspired me to stay true to my conscience and to the African-American ideals and vision.

In April 1992, Ashe announced to the world at a news conference in New York City that he had the virus that causes AIDS. He contracted the virus through a blood transfusion in 1983. On February 6, 1993, he died from Pneumonia. I had the opportunity to learn firsthand about tennis and race relations in America, working side-by-side with him during the Christmas holidays at the Doral Resort and Country Club in Miami, FL, where he had been the visiting international tennis director and I was the head tennis professional. As a result of our relationship, I got to meet Jeannie Ashe, Camera Ashe, Charlayne Hunter- Gault, Earl Graves, John Jacob and many others.

Today, I wanted to share some of his thoughts on tennis development in Africa. One can easily conclude that since his death, African-American tennis has lost its momentum. Even with the outstanding accomplishments of Venus, Serena, Blake and others. And since his death, tennis programs in Africa too have lost a voice and many are at a standstill. Many African tennis programs simply failed to live up to the expectations and his vision of seeing young African players compete in Grand Slam and Davis Cup tournaments. Yannick Noah from Cameroun remains the only African ever to win the French Open – a Grand Slam tournament. The United States Tennis Association (USTA) and the global tennis community continue to honor and celebrate his accomplishments every year at the U.S Open by organizing the “Arthur Ashe Day” event– by bringing together celebrities and well-wishers to remember and honor him. Many under-privileged inner city kids are exposed to the game on this day.

Tennis development in Africa needs serious help. The Confederation of African Tennis (CAT), the governing institution whose primary responsibility it is to promote and safeguard the game is embroiled in continental politics with national tennis federations or associations. It provided little or no financial assistance to national association. The International Tennis Federation (ITF), on the other hand, provides technical and financial assistance to national associations for tennis development and has set up the ITF Development Programme and the Grand Slam Development Funds to promote and develop the game in Africa. But the African Junior Championships need to be expanded and new technical advisers from African players in the Diaspora should emerge. The ITF Development staff continues to work closely with national associations in planning, designing, and implementing tennis programs. ITF has failed, though, in truthfully reporting the excessive corruption and abuse of tennis officials in Africa. Since 1970s, ITF has appropriated millions of pounds to tennis development in Africa, with little or nothing to show for the investment. However, ITF continues to provide commitment and support national associations.

Arthur Ashe believes that Africa has the potential to dominate global tennis. In the 1970s, Ashe and his longtime friend, Stan Smith toured Africa as a goodwill gesture to raise awareness of the game and lessen political tension brewing in the continent as a result of tension in South Africa. All his life, he has advocated for a purposeful tennis development programs in Africa.

We spoke periodically over four years before his death. We talked about the need to have effective tennis programs scattered around Africa. We talked about the cost of a full-fledged tennis academy to be sponsored by national governments and private companies, which are to be administered and monitored by national tennis associations and former national players. Many African countries continue to lack the tennis infrastructures to support the high-tech training program enjoyed in many developed countries. Government-run tennis development programs continue to lack the seriousness and the urgency needed to place talented players on the world circuit. African tennis programs continue to produce mediocre players who cannot compete in continental and international high class tournaments.

Ashe believes that a world-class tennis academy may cost about $10 million or more to start with. The academy, if well conceptualized and well designed, will allow the best young players in Africa to pursue tennis full time and stay in school. Education is extremely important to him. In fact, I earned masters and doctoral degrees 10 years after Ashe died at a reputable university in Florida because of his influence and guidance. He believes that to be competitive, we must catch young talented players as early as five or six years old. And when they are developed and formed, they can practice up to 10 hours a day. Typically, modern players practice about 50 hours a week, including psychological and mental training time and time for gym work and school work. Many tennis academies in developed nations offer online academic program for their students in order to accommodate the training program. Many are given laptops to do various assignments during tournaments. Corporate partnerships and sponsorship are established to support the endeavor. This allows for long-term financial commitment and continuity. Tennis Scholarship and Tournament Fund are also set aside for these players. Former national players act as stakeholders and play important roles in planning, conceptualizing, and implementing national academies. They also act as technical advisers. Quality monthly junior tournaments are planned for all year round. Parental involvement and incentives integrated into the plan, which is usually 5 to 10 years.

Ashe has given us a blueprint for tennis development. As a visionary, scholar and educator, in the 50s, 60s, and 70s, he envisioned the tennis world to be replete with different players playing together on different surface in harmony and peace. His voice was loud and clear enough to engender the spirits that move many to make a commitment to personal and professional growth. He opposed racial discrimination everywhere and fought for women’s rights. He challenged people everywhere to learn more about the continent of Africa and to increase our knowledge and understanding of the world. He acknowledged that our view of the world is not universally shared, and therefore we should allow others to express their humanity and identity. The African community everywhere must listen and act to change our perception of others. The next fifteen years may hold the promise of a vision that unites the world through game of tennis. That is what Ashe would have wanted. And that what is he desires.

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Mr. Tennis development March 17, 2009 - 10:32 am

AS ITF development officer based in Africa I would like to give feedback regarding your interesting article. The ITF does its level best in terms of trying to develop the game. The ITF (Grand Slam development fund) more in AFrica than any other continent. IT is very difficult to say that the ITF has failed as such. With the investment given and invested we do our level best. When taking into consideration the investment that the Grand slam nation put into their tennis development we do very well. WE have junior tennis initiative program, national, regional, and continental tournament initiatives catering for all levels, training camps, coaches educaiton and two continental training centres. Many AFrican players have gone on to receive US scholarships as was Ashe’s dream. Yes, I agree we have not produce an African champion, but inorder to do this we need our budget to increase dramatically. There needs to be more support particularly from a National association point of view. We can’t do everything.

Reply February 8, 2008 - 8:16 am

Habu’s comments are well on target. We must do more more to develop the game of tennis in Africa. We need to begin with the CAT and the ITF, then proceed to national associations, and finally to all the stakeholders especially the business community. We need to engage our leadership in conversation about change and about new approaches to tennis Africa. Ashe has given us a plan. We need courage, commitment, sacrifices, and a lot of money.

Habu February 7, 2008 - 12:25 am

In addition, Ashe was one strong pioneer who help foreign tennis players secure scholaships in the United States. In fact he said for the Americans be able to compete with the world, it should encourage such act of humanity. Because of the advocacy, African tennis players’ lives changed by securing athletic scholarships in America and it opportuned them chances improved their skills, etc.

Equally, Ashe wanted the best for his ancesstrial home [African], the problems are that, sponsorship is 98 percent rested on the shoulder of various governments when compare to other nations in the west with little government supports. Further, we africans still do not consider tennis or other sports as sourcess of employment as the so called advance nations. Still, you have various national or states coaches unequiped to train players but are paid just for showing up to offices. Until Africans tennis experts really advocate to various national presidents to do serious public relations with the companies realize funds, Ashe love of tennis for African children will not be realize even in the next 50 years. We must all do more! And, I did not know that Africans in America are also called African Americans? Personally, I would prefer to coined African Americans as simply Africans, even duo we do not necessary get alone!


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