Unearthing Soweto's tennis talent

Limakatso Khalianyane

18 April 2011

Lebohang Mokgoatsi, a 15-year-old from Jabavu, used to spend most of his time in the streets where he was exposed to stealing and smoking. But thanks to the Arthur Ashe Tennis Centre in Soweto, he practises tennis after school instead.

Mokgoatsi lives a street away from the centre; he is one of the kids who have been attending coaching clinics staffed by professional players since the Soweto Open began in 2009.

"Training at the centre has helped me avoid doing all the bad things that I was exposed to while I used to spend most of my time in the streets. The pressure was too much as some friends would sometimes persuade us to go steal and smoke," said Mokgoatsi.

Mokgoatsi, whose role model is Australian Open champion Novak Djokovic of Serbia, is a grade nine learner from Tlhatlhogang Senior Secondary School in Jabavu.

"When I grow up I want to be a professional tennis player just like Djokovic and play in big tournaments like the Soweto Open," he reckoned.

Increasing numbers

According to the tournament director of the Soweto Open, Gavin Crookes, slowly but surely, people from Soweto are getting used to tennis, and the numbers of spectators at the event has increased over the past two years.

In 2010, the number of spectators was around 2 500 for the entire tournament. This year it had already attracted almost 2 000 people from Monday to Thursday – before the tournament reached its latter rounds, concluding on Sunday.

"The community of Soweto becomes part of this tournament, because we involve them in the schedule, such as ball watchers. In 2009, only 20 percent of ball watchers were from Soweto, but this year all of them are from Soweto," said Crookes.

The Arthur Ashe Tennis Centre is home to one of 14 development hubs in South Africa where over 850 children from the ages of six to 12 are being trained with equipment that is designed for them.

The Soweto Open is sponsored by the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) and the International Tennis Federation (ITF).

"The ATP and ITF are very happy with the way the event has been handled and they want to extend the contract; however that will depend on the City of Joburg. If it will provide the funds for the event, the decisions will be taken after the election on 18 May," said Crookes.

"This event will provide Joburg with publicity, as it is a world class African city. Also, it helps in promoting tennis as a sport, both in the city as well as in the country."

Player development

Oupa Nthuping is a development coach at the centre, employed by the South African Tennis Association. "We recruit children from schools and crèches to teach them the basics of tennis," he said.

"During school hours, we coach school leavers and unemployed people just to keep them out of the street and keep them busy, which gives them less time to think about corruption and crime."

The most popular sport in Soweto is football, while cricket also features strongly.

"Tennis does not have popularity among blacks; however, the Soweto Open has played a role in making Sowetans show appreciation and a better understanding of the sport," said Nthuping.

International players

Within Soweto, there is a squad that participates in tournaments around South Africa. Young stars from primary schools in Jabavu know international players and they rush to the centre to watch them after school.

Nthuping's parents were both tennis players; they met at a tennis tournament. He grew up playing tennis, despite his friends joking that he was playing a girls' sport. That did not discourage him and he has won a lot of titles locally as well as internationally.

In 1986, after being retrenched from his job in the mining industry, he started a tennis development centre in Protea Glen. He was sponsored by local businesses; "amazingly even spaza shops use to sponsor me to show appreciation for getting kids out of the streets," said Nthuping.

Source: City of Johannesburg

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South African Davis Cup star Jeff Coetzee helps with coaching at the Arthur Ashe Tennis Centre in Jabavu, Soweto (Photo: Reg Caldecott / City of Johannesburg)

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