You might think, understandably, that sporting success, in any of its many and varied guises, would be an unattainable goal it you were living in Namibia, a country of just 2.6 million people. And you would probably be right.
Similar to a lot of countries in our region, tennis has been an elitist sport in Namibia. It used to have an elitist image, a game played by ambassadors and not the everyday person, but that has all changed and the JTI has been integral to achieving that. Tennis in Namibia was mainly played by white people and white communities and was not really seen as a sport for black communities. Equally, black people did not see themselves playing tennis.”Tapiwa Masunga, the ITF’s Development Officer for Southern Africa
With just 14 inches of rain water falling per annum, this parched, desert dominated African nation, the driest of all the sub-Saharan countries, is geographically and financially challenged in a way that few of its neighbours – including Zambia and Angola to the north, Botswana and South Africa to the east and south – are.
Rugby and cricket are its primary sports although in the 90’s, those of a certain vintage reading this might recall the great Frankie Fredericks, winner of four silver Olympic medals in 100 and 200 metres track and field events?. Namibian athletes have also competed in Olympic cycling, road racing and boxing events.
So where, might you ask, is tennis in all of this?
Not very prominent is the answer, but that may be about to change, with an International Tennis Federation programme beginning to plant seeds into the junior game in the country.
Indeed, at this years national senior event in September, it was juniors, a 15 year old boy and an 18 year old girl who – both unseeded – took the honours, a remarkable testament to the JTI (Junior Tennis Initiative) programmes that the ITF is putting on in developing countries around the world.
Needless to say, a couple of weeks later, in October, the pair went on to win their respective national junior titles, both without dropping a set!!
For the record, the 15 year old is Daniel Jauss and his female compatriot is Taimi Nashiku, who is based over the border in South Africa. Jauss defeated the second seed, 19 year old Risto Shikongo 6-3, 7-5 in his final while 18 year old Taimi Nashiku defeated fellow junior Larushka Kruger for the loss of two games?
At his age, Jauss knows that there is a long road ahead but he has a good attitude and is not afraid of hard work, as he acknowledged after his victory, “I have been playing really well for the past few months and I am working really hard on my game so that I keep on improving.”
Why might any of this matter?
Well, for one thing, in the world of international tennis, it is the smart professionals who keep an eye on who is following them. Namibia is not on the tennis map from a public perspective, but its progress has been noted, for example, by 20 times Grand Slam singles winner, Roger Federer, who visited the country earlier this year on behalf of his Foundation, which supports education in the region.
He was joined in an exhibition match by 2020 French Open winner Rafael Nadal, philanthropist Bill Gates and South African comedian and TV show host, Trevor Noah. That’s a lot of money represented on court, not to mention skill, experience and prestige for any young tennis player (Jauss and Nashiku included), to aspire to. And gracious as ever, it was arch-champion Federer who led the way in offering lessons in humility, commenting, “It was only Rafa who could make the event truly special.”
For Namibian tennis, it is all part of the building process to bring the game into the mainstream, as Tapiwa Masunga, the ITF’s Development Officer for Southern Africa explains.
“Similar to a lot of countries in our region, tennis has been an elitist sport in Namibia,” he says. “It used to have an elitist image, a game played by ambassadors and not the everyday person, but that has all changed and the JTI has been integral to achieving that. Tennis in Namibia was mainly played by white people and white communities and was not really seen as a sport for black communities. Equally, black people did not see themselves playing tennis.”
Focusing on the 14 and under age group primarily, the Junior Tennis Initiative, started by the national federation and supported by the ITF, is making an impact, a small impact but an impact nevertheless. In recent years, 2,138 girls and 1,375 boys have participated in programmes run in schools and clubs across the country, including in some of the most deprived areas. Masunga says,
“The JTI in Namibia has targeted under-privileged communities – some of the poor communities in the capital city of Windhoek for instance – and the programme has introduced tennis to kids in those areas. They now have access to those values which sport teaches, while some of those individuals are now getting the chance to be part of the national junior set-up. Had tennis not been introduced to their community, those options would not be available to them.
And it’s making a racial, as well as a sporting, difference.
“For years and years, the Namibian national junior team was predominantly white, but in the last two or three years more and more black kids are making it through to the national team and winning junior competitions,” says Masunga. “The hope, of course, is that the kids involved in the JTI programme play tennis to an advanced level, but, if they don’t that doesn’t matter. It is more important that they can be rewarded with the value of tennis.”
And that, perhaps, says it all. Tennis the mega-dollar, global brand meets Namibia’s poorest. It’s a quiet and oft-unspoken revolution, but Namibian tennis is taking its first, baby steps. The Namibian Tennis Federation, the ITF, and the game’s top players, deserve to be credited for it.
‘Baby Steps?’ was originally published in Tennis Threads magazine, Autumn 2020