- Posted February 1, 2014 by
Dreaming of an African Roland Garros
West Africa is one of the poorest regions in the world. But this does not stop a West African from organising a tennis tournament in the area. Boniface Papa Nouveau dreams of fostering tennis in Africa.
About ten years ago, several young Africans had successfully gained good ATP-classifications. But nowadays there is not even one black African among the 500 best tennis players in the world, as Boniface Papa Nouveau explains. Initiator and promoter of two new tournaments in West Africa, the tennis enthusiast aims to develop his favourite sport in Africa.
An early passion
The Ivorian works as a delegate for the international transport company Hesnault in Togo and Benin where he currently lives. Having grown up in France, he discovered his passion for tennis early in his life. At the age of ten he got his first tennis racket and since then never got away from this sport. Due to a severe arm injury in his youth, he had to give up his dream of becoming a professional player and taught tennis for many years instead. Today he still is an enthusiastic tennis player and hopes that one day an African could become the next Roland Garros.
International players coming to West Africa
After the successful first edition in 2012, Boniface Papa Nouveau decided to organise two tournaments in a row in the following year. The first one, called Open du Togo, was held from the 9th to the 14th of December 2013 in Togo’s capital Lomé. 54 players from 12 different countries participated. The second one, Open de Cotonou, took place from the 16th to the 21st of December 2013 in Cotonou, Benin. With 78 young players coming from 13 different countries, the level at the tournament in Benin was already higher than the previous year. Among the participants were international tennis players such as the French Alexandre Renard, the Colombian Juan Gomez and the Franco-Beninese Alexis Klegou. The latter is the unbeaten winner of all three tournaments since 2012. Wanting to motivate numerous young players to participate in the tournaments, a prize money was even handed out to the players who only won one single match. The winner’s prize money from the competition in Togo was 700.000 CFA Francs (around 1.500 US Dollars) and 1.000.000 CFA Francs (around 2.100 US Dollars) in Benin.
Organising a tennis tournament in a region where this sport is still quite unknown was a big challenge, the promoter tells. One tournament came up to 150 million CFA Francs (around 310.000 US Dollars). And it was far from easy to find sponsors. But not only finding sponsors turned out to be complicated. There had also been some difficulties between the organizing committee and the International Tennis Federation. The federation came to watch the games but refused to support financially the second edition of the West African tournaments. “We do not share the same vision of developing tennis in Benin”, Papa Nouveau comments. Overall he is satisfied with the 2013 tournaments’ passing, despite some problems with the umpires and the spectators’ discipline during the semi-final in Benin.
A sport for the rich?
One might ask himself if tennis - not being the cheapest among all kinds of sport – has the potential to ever be really successful in developing regions like West Africa. Already buying tennis equipment might not be as easy in Africa as elsewhere. "If you want to buy equipment in Africa, sometimes a city doesn't even have a sports shop that sells rackets. If they do, it's three times the price in Europe," Frank Couraud, International Tennis Federation's (ITF) development projects administrator, told CNN. Boniface Papa Nouveau does not think that tennis is a sport that is reserved for rich families’. For instance most of the young Ivorians that succeeded in having a good classification were born in poor families. When they played well, the International Tennis Federation supported them. “After the age of 18 it should be up to the state to back them up. But as the latter does not do so, most of them in the end become tennis coaches”, he says.
Football wins over tennis
One reason why it is so hard to implement tennis is because football still is the most popular sport in Africa. There is almost no visibility of tennis in the media, Boniface Papa Nouveau explains. Therefore young people rather play football. ITF's Frank Couraud told CNN that "If you look at our budget ($ 4.3 million each year) it's what (soccer's ruling body) FIFA gives to maybe one or two nations. There's a huge discrepancy."
Not enough tennis matches
There are a lot of young talented tennis players in sub-Saharan Africa but many of them do not get the possibility to further develop their skills on an international level. One of the reasons for this is that there are not enough tennis matches in Africa, Boniface Papa Nouveau says. In Ivory Coast for example there used to be professional tennis tournaments with the chance to win ATP points (points for the world rankings given by the ATP) around ten years ago. But today, there are not even national tournaments anymore. So young Africans practice without being able to take part in a competition, he explains. Even when they finally get the chance to participate in a competition, they are not able to give their best, because they are not used to playing in a match. According to Boniface Papa Nouveau a young player even came from Ruanda in East Africa to take part in the 2013 competitions in Togo and in Benin. And some other participants even asked him to organise a competition in countries as Niger, Burkina Faso or Ivory Coast.
Black Africa behind
According to CNN, Africa has not produced a grand slam singles finalist since South African Kevin Curren lost against Boris Becker at the 1985 Wimbledon Championships. Looking at the current ATP single ranking, there is only one African among the best 100 male players in the world – the South African Kevin Anderson on rank 21. You can say as much for the best 100 female players where Chanelle Scheepers from South Africa is the only African to be ranked 79th. This shows that tennis does not have the same reputation in all African countries. The situation in North Africa is much better than in black Africa. For instance in Morocco, Tunisia or Egypt there are a lot of tournaments, clubs and many young players with good classifications.
North Africa leading
Therefore it is not surprising that till now there are just a small number of professional tennis tournaments where players can earn ATP ranking points in Africa. In 2013, the North-African country Morocco was the only African country to host the ATP Wold Tour - the global professional tennis competition organised by the Association of Tennis Professionals. However some more African countries have already hosted the Pro Circuit by the International Tennis Federation, which is an entry level of professional tennis tournaments. In 2013 there were three North African countries (Egypt, Morocco, Senegal) and four sub-Saharan countries (Burundi, Gabon, Nigeria, Rwanda) to host one of the ITF Pro Circuit’s tournaments.
A future for African tennis
What is necessary for tennis to become more popular in sub-Saharan Africa? First of all a big tennis tournament just like in Togo and Benin in every African country, Boniface Papa Nouveau says. Second of all tennis federations and the governments would have to engage more in the development of tennis. At last there is a need for more tennis clubs in order to initiate tournaments.
The tennis enthusiast wants to continue spreading tennis in sub-Saharan Africa. “It would be great if we could add a competition in the categories women and double. Moreover I would love to have more young people coming from all over the world.” For 2014 he envisages organising three professional international tennis tournaments in West Africa: one in Ivory Coast, one in Benin and one in Togo.