Twin sisters out to put Kenyan tennis on global map - Beaking Kenya News

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Sunday, 7 February 2021

Twin sisters out to put Kenyan tennis on global map


Kenyan tennis players Angela Okutoyi and Roselida Asumwa are the embodiment of resilience, unwavering drive and determination.

Okutoyi and Asumwa are currently placed 127th and 1,149th respectively in the International Tennis Federation (ITF) Junior rankings, the twins are on a mission to put Africa on the global tennis scene.

Their most recent achievement is moving up the ITF Junior rankings after show-stopping performances in the Nairobi edition of the ITF World Junior Tennis Tour in January. 

This was the first international event in Tennis Kenya’s calendar since early last year when Covid-19 pandemic disrupted sports globally. The three-week event, held at the Nairobi Club, brought together 20 countries.

Okutoyi stamped her authority in the event, winning all her matches to move up the world rankings.

“I’ve played tennis for so long and it has become part of me. Its really who I am and so I don’t take these competitions lightly, they might be tough at times but I am enjoying every moment of it,” Okutoyi told Nation Sport yesterday at their family home in Loreto Convent Valley Road in Nairobi.

Roselinda Asumwa

Roselinda Asumwa plays a forehand shot to Cynthia Cheruto during Eastern Africa Junior Tennis Championship semi-final match at Nairobi Club on January 10, 2018.

Chris Omollo | Nation Media Group

 Okutoyi leaves for Morocco on Wednesday to join the ITF Training Center for the remainder of the year.

The same center has previously hosted Kenya’s top-seed male player Ismael Changawa who is currently ranked 1,738th in the ITF Singles roster.

Like Okutoyi and Asumwa, Changawa siblings Ismael and Shufaa have also dominated the Kenyan tennis scene in previous years, specialising in both the doubles and singles matches.

Things might seem to be working well for Okutoyi and Asumwa sisters, but their journey to sporting greatness hasn’t been a bed of roses.

When you first meet the 17-year-olds who are currently in secondary school, you may never guess that at some point, they were under the care of an orphanage in Loreto Msongari in Nairobi.

Angela Okutoyi and Roselinda Asumwa

Kenya's tennis top seed Angela Okutoyi (left) and sister Roselinda Asumwa relax at their home in Loreto Convent, Nairobi on February 6, 2021.

Kanyiri Wahito | Nation Media Group

After being born, their mother died after suffering child birth complications, and they ended up in the orphanage where they stayed for a year and a half.

“We would have lost the twins if we were not careful because a foreign couple would visit them without our knowledge and were even planning to adopt them,” said Allan Atola, the twins’ maternal uncle who is also a coach.

Atola reckons were it not for one of the caregivers at the orphanage who informed them of the interest by the foreign couple in the girls, the family would have never seen them again.

“It was tough for my mother when the twins joined the family because they seemed an additional burden, but I knew they would be a blessing to the family later on.” Said Atola.

Their grandmother Mary Ndonga already had a tough time working odd jobs and the arrival of  the twins put additional strain on the family’s resources. Today, the girls seem a bit shy when talking about their upbringing, perhaps because of the hardship they have endured to get to where they are today.

Angela Okutoyi, Mary Ndonga and Roselinda Asumwa

Kenya's tennis top seed Angela Okutoyi (centre), her grandmother Mary Ndonga (left) and sister Roselinda Asumwa pick chaff from a tray of rice at their home in Loreto Convent, Nairobi on February 6, 2021.

Kanyiri Wahito | Nation Media Group

And they could be right. For decades, tennis has been affiliated with the rich but the two sisters came from humble backgrounds  when they were introduced to tennis by their uncle Atola and a tennis coach Joe Karanja from Loreto-based Joe Karanja Tennis Association.  Karanja allowed them free entry to his tennis courts for practice so they could get a feel of what playing professionally is.

“Coach Karanja was a blessing to us. He came in right when we needed him,  and the girls got inspired playing on a more professional court. Previously, they had been playing in an abandoned construction site in the estate where we used to train,” said Atola.

At only four years old, the girls held their own rackets for the first time and marvelled at the joy of bouncing the ball within the court. Coach Atola vividly recalls how they spent long days and dark nights practising under the glare of street lights to be ready for any tournament.

“People used to think I was forcing the girls to play a sport they didn’t care for, but I had seen their potential way before and was willing to take them to victory. Tennis was their meal ticket,” says Atola.

Twelve years later in the game, it is paying off.  The financial challenges are still there but the girls have featured in numerous tournaments, enabling them to get sponsorships.

In 2018, Okutoyi, became the youngest player to win the Kenya Open tournament at 14 after upsetting three-time champion Shufaa 6-1, 7-6 at the Nairobi Club.

Angela Okutoyi, Roselinda Asumwa and coach Peter Wachira

Angela Okutoyi (left) and Roselinda Asumwa (right) pose for a photo with their coach Peter Wachira at Peponi School during the second leg of the ITF World Tennis Tour at Peponi School in Ruiru on August 16, 2019.

Sila Kiplagat | Nation Media Group

“I honestly don’t have low moments in my tennis journey because I take every match seriously. I always aim at victory no matter who or where I’m playing, although losing might sometimes get to me,” said Okutoyi.

They have featured in different tournaments in Kenya and around the world, winning several accolades. In 2019, Okutoyi was nominated in the category for the Most Outstanding Player in the Sports Personality of the Year Awards (Soya).

Some of the significant tournaments they have competed in since 2014 include the Kenya Open, Karen Open, East African Zonal Championships in Tanzania, Futures Championships in Egypt, Annual Junior Championships in Nairobi, and the Orange Ball Championship in USA.

Angela Okutoyi, Mary Ndonga and Roselinda Asumwa

Kenya's tennis top seed Angela Okutoyi (left), her grandmother Mary Ndonga (centre) and sister Roselinda Asumwa admire a trophy at their home in Loreto Convent, Nairobi on February 6, 2021.

Kanyiri Wahito | Nation Media Group

They have also competed locally in ITF Under-18 tournament,  and ITF/CAT Under-14 Championship, with Okutoyi emerging runners-up at the 2018 Africa Cup of Nations tournament when she lost to seeded player Bechri Chiraz from Tunisia to settle for silver medal. Okutoyi also played in the 2019 ITF Women’s Tour.

All this has earned Okutoyi a spot in the ITF Tennis Training Center in Nairobi, which has made her life easier. She attends school there and trains at the facilities there.

Asumwa has also scored big in competitions, including emerging runners-up at the 2018 Africa Zonal Championships.

She is the reigning Kenya Secondary Schools Sports Association tennis champion, and also competed in the 2019 Kenya open, Karen open, and the Annual Junior championships (AJC) alongside Okutoyi. She competed in the 2019 ITF Women’s tournament at Peponi School in Nairobi.

Asumwa had taken a year off tennis, which put her sister in a better position to get better at the game.

“The fact that we are twins does not necessarily mean that we’ll end up liking the same thing forever.  Things will change as we grow up but I’m glad I came back after my break,” says Asumwa.

Other than playing tennis, Asumwa also fancies being an airhostess or a swimmer.

“When it comes to international tennis, we both admire the Williams sisters but locally we like to think that we have set the bar ourselves and we are willing and ready to continue inspiring younger players,” Okutoyi added.

Okutoyi is lucky to be in the International Tennis Academy. Asumwa is in Shadrack Kimalel School in Kibra. The institutions give them a chance to learn and play tennis professionally. Okutoyi’s other interests are photography, swimming and dancing.

As players, the  greatest challenge for the 17-year-olds is finances. Buying tennis kits and paying for travel to different countries has been the most difficult hurdle for them.

“We might train and be ready for tournaments but we sometimes skip tournament because of lack of adequate money, which is sad but we stick to the game because we love it,”  said Okutoyi.

The most important thing for the girls is improving their ranking to get to the top 100 in the world and gaining enough points before getting into college.

‘We really want to pursue the game professionally and we are hoping that our hard work will get us into good universities on scholarships, especially in Europe,’ said Okutoyi.

“Okutoyi has already broken through and she has proven capable of challenging almost every junior Kenyan female player, now we have the challenge of trying to make her play with the boys to get a bigger challenge and to acquire different techniques, otherwise she might have a problem competing outside the country because she is already the strongest player locally,” said Atola.

Atola agrees that the game is slowly getting better, although Kenya needs to build more tennis courts. Kenya also lacks highly trained and uncertified coaches.

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