How Kenyan tennis has bounced back to the top

Tennis player Sneah Kotecha / OLIVER MORGAN
Tennis player Sneah Kotecha / OLIVER MORGAN

The emergence of young and talented tennis players from the International Tennis Federation junior circuits held annually in the country has been credited for Kenya’s return to the lucrative Europe/Africa Zone Group II.

The circuits, held thrice a year, have created a platform for fast-rising tennis players to showcase their talents and impress national team coaches with an eye to being drafted to the men’s Davis and the women’s Fed Cup teams.

The Kenyan team, which comprised of two players who ply their trade in the Junior circuits, returned to the Group II alongside Benin after 16 years in the cold, following their success in July. Both the January and December circuits have three legs, while the July one has two legs, and this year’s tournaments paid dividends as the duo of Albert Njogu and Ryan Randiek made it to the provisional squad.

Njogu, who is bound to join form four next year at Mbagathi Secondary School, has been outstanding in this year’s circuits, reaching the finals twice. Similarly, Randiek also has had a good run of results in the circuits in the past before a knuckle injury early this year slowed his pace.

The duo have earned ranks in the circuits, punched above their weight in domestic tournaments and been tipped to dominate the scene once their seniors hang the racket.

The Kenyan Captain for the Cup Rosemary Owino, who missed one of her inspirational players Kevin Cheruiyot, also summoned two young players, Petty Andanda and Olivier Kigotho, to the team. And despite them being unused, the seasoned coach expressed delight with their commitment and urge to break to the senior team.

She said she opted for the young players who ply their trades in the circuits to help push the senior ones and serve as a motivation to the players in different age brackets.

During the naming of the final team to the Cup, Owino praised the contribution of the circuits in talent identification and development, and predicted more stars will be groomed from them. From the circuits, promising players from the girls’ category have also been spotted and nurtured.

This year, fast-rising Sneha Kotecha has clinched three singles titles, while Alicia Owegi, Cynthia Cheruto, Roselida Asumwa, Esther Miheso, Claire Mithoni and Gabriella Miheso have sprouted from the circuits.

The establishment of the ITF/Confederation of Africa Tennis East Africa High Performance Centre in Nairobi has been credited for producing the reigning Africa 14 and under champion Angela Okutoyi, who is among the Kenyan players based in the centre.

Despite being only 14 years, Okutoyi is ranked 496 globally in the senior category, an achievement which the centre’s head coach Francis Rogoi links to her stay in the centre. The centre, which draws players from the East Africa region and beyond, has nurtured other upcoming players, such as Randiek and Derrick Ominde, who have been tipped as the future of the men’s national team.

The centre was initially based in Burundi but due to high political temperatures, it was relocated to Kenya in 2015 as a camp, before being confirmed a year later. Following the success achieved in the short period, the centre was officially opened by ITF President David Haggerty, flanked by CAT President Tarak Cherif in April this year.

Rogoi believes the enrollment of Kenyans in the centre has created a platform for them to be nurtured at their young ages and further tipped them to dominate in the near future.

“When you compare the performance before the centre was established in Kenya and what we have managed to achieve since then, you will note the difference. We have produced the African champion in the 14 and under, Okutoyi, who is also doing well in the seniors, despite being young," he said.

"She recently won the Kenya Open, beating an experienced Shufaa Changawa in the finals, which shows we are on the right track. We have nurtured Randiek and Ominde in the boy’s category, who are promising, and I believe soon they will dominate. It’s a priceless platform, and the results reaped from the period it has been around are there for all to see. With the centre, the future is bright and secure, not only in the country but in the region and the continent.”

The inception of the Stars Challenge by Kenya Tennis President James Kenani has been viewed as building a strong team for the future.

The tournament, launched in October, seeks to pair the experienced senior players and the junior ones with the aim of boosting the latter’s endurance and nurturing their talents at their young ages.

Kenani announced plans to revamp the Fed Cup team next year to match that of Men.