Kenya’s Okutoyi aiming to be ‘Serena of Africa’ at French Open
It has been a long and painful path for Angella Okutoyi to reach the red clay courts of Roland Garros but the 18-year-old Kenyan is in no doubt about her ambition.
“The French Open is the big stage,” she told AFP.
“My goal is to do better than I did in Australia… and if I can win the tournament why not?”
High ambitions for a young woman who ranks 66 in the world junior rankings and who has overcome the tragedy of losing her mother when she was an infant.
The signs are already encouraging after she became the first Kenyan girl to win a junior Grand Slam match earlier this year when she reached the third round of the Australian Open.
“Playing at the Grand Slam, which has always been a dream for me, was a good experience and a good lesson too,” said Okutoyi who draws inspiration from Serena Williams, her childhood idol whose style of play she has adopted.
Her coach Francis Rogoi says Okutoyi is gifted and that when she begins her Paris campaign, she will do so armed with a powerful backhand and an aggressive baseline game, just like 23-time Grand Slam winner Williams.
“I hope she’s successful in reaching the next level and see if we can have a Serena from Africa,” Rogoi told AFP.
This could, of course, be just another story about another tennis wannabe but Okutoyi’s tale is different to most.
No privilege and private lessons; instead, infant tragedy, hard graft and the love of a devoted grandmother who Okutoyi refers to as ‘The Drive’.
Angella and twin sister Roselida were born on January 29, 2004.
A bittersweet day as their mother died shortly after giving birth.
The two baby girls were initially given up to an orphanage who put them up for adoption, at which point their grandmother Mary Ndong’a swooped in to raise them herself.
“We were about to be adopted — me and my sister — by different families. You wouldn’t have known us, and maybe I wouldn’t be playing this sport,” said Okutoyi.
“That’s why I call her my ‘Drive’. I treasure her a lot and that’s why she’s my ‘Drive’,” she said.
The twins moved in with Ndong’a, now 56, who became, to all intents and purposes, their mother.
They lived together in her tiny quarters at the Nairobi private school where she worked as a cleaner and before long Okutoyi found herself drawn to the school’s tennis court.
She was just four when she first picked up a racquet but, since then, she has immersed herself in the game, practicing long hours, five days a week, and has consequently enjoyed a meteoric rise through the ranks of Kenyan tennis, climbing to the top of Africa’s junior circuit.
Reaching the third round in Melbourne was a massive breakthrough for the high-school student and she is hoping to follow it with good performances in Paris and then at the junior tournament at Wimbledon.
There will also be pressure.
This is her last year on the junior circuit and it will only get tougher if Okutoyi, currently ranked by the WTA at 1,554 in the world, progresses to the professional ranks next year.
But she has already broken down one barrier with her performance in Melbourne and the teenager is aware that, like Williams, she too can serve as a role model to future tennis stars, especially those hailing from poor families like her own.
She still lives with Mary in the workers’ quarters where she was raised.
Her humble beginnings and the influence and example of her grandmother have helped her stay grounded, she says, allowing her to manage the pressures that come with the territory.
“If I put it too much (in my head), it will distract me, and I might think I am better than the rest,” she said, adding: “I am the same person I was before Australia.”