18 Oct 2017

Five of the best from Sofia

News Article

By Leigh Walsh

BNP Paribas Room - Workshop Presentation

SOFIA, BULGARIA: Five of the standout stories from the ITF Worldwide Coaches Conference by BNP Paribas in Sofia…

The growth of tennis in Iran

If you ever wondered about the health of tennis in Iran, this little nugget of information should give you an idea. In 2005, three Iranian coaches attended the 14th edition of the conference. This year? 65. In fact, after the host nation of Bulgaria, Iran was the second-most represented country in Sofia.

Among the delegation were Neda Dadkhah and Ladan Ekhlasi, two female coaches full of passion about the growth of the game in their home country. At the age of 14, Neda began playing with no rackets in a drained-out swimming pool, while Ladan’s first visit to a tennis club at 16 sparked her love for the game. “One of the best players in our city was warming up,” she remembers with a smile. “And when I heard the sound of the ball, I just really loved it.”

For now, tennis is still very much a participation sport rather than a performance one in Iran, but with around 1,000 coaches registered the game at grassroots is certainly growing.

The boy from Cambodia

After the sport of tennis was eradicated during the genocide by the Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s, Tennis Cambodia was officially re-established in 1994 under a powerful slogan: “From Killing Fields to Tennis Courts”. With only three registered national players surviving the genocide the governing body set about utilising tennis to make a positive impact on people’s lives.

ITF President Dave Haggerty saw this first-hand when he visited Phnom Penh earlier this year, meeting a number of inspirational figures – but one young boy in particular stood out.

He was one of the children to emerge from three buses full of youngsters in the country’s capital, supported by his crutches after losing a limb after a landmine exploded while he was playing football.

“He was running around the court just as fast as anyone else and it taught me how this sport can be life changing,” said Haggerty in an interview in Sofia. “All these kids were orphans, they had lost parents, and he had the biggest smile on his face.

“I would travel anywhere, as many times as I had to, to see that again because it really impacted me how tennis had impacted him.”

From South Africa to Fiji via America

Roxanne Clarke has come full circle. Born in South Africa to tennis-playing parents who were strong advocates of the anti-apartheid cause, her talent opened up a world of opportunities when she was invited to train at one of the very first ITF Training Centres in Pretoria. Now, after a career which has seen her represent her country in Fed Cup and receive a coveted NCAA scholarship – first at Florida State and then at Arizona State – she’s looking to lead others on their own path, taking up a director role at the ITF Pacific Oceania Regional Training Centre in Fiji.

“It was a big change,” she nods. “When I first got there the first thing I noticed is how athletic they are and they don’t even realise it. I’m seeing all this potential.”

For Roxanne, it’s about changing mindsets in a region where rugby rules all. With 15 players full-time at the centre, originating from the Northern Mariana Islands, Solomon Islands, Federated States of Micronesia and Fiji itself, her goal is getting her students to train with high intensity and pushing them out of their comfort zone. For the higher performers, she wants them striving for ITF Junior rankings.

However, she’s very much aware of the need to get the players walking before they can run, particularly in a part of the world with little tennis history. “My proudest moments as a coach are when you see kids overcome things daily that they themselves didn’t think they could do,” she says. One step at a time. 

What is success?

You won’t meet many people as passionate about tennis in Africa as the three ITF regional development officers in the continent: Thierry Ntwali (East Africa), Riaan Kruger (Southern Africa) and Amine Ben Makhlouf (West, North & Central Africa).

A 45-minute roundtable discussion on the opportunities and challenges the sport faces on the world’s second-most populated continent raised many interesting questions, with one standing out above all: how do we define success?

For some it’s cracking into the world’s top 100, for others it’s taking a few games off the top seed in their local club tournament. Thinking differently about the player pathway opens so many doors, particularly in Africa, they explained.

“I’m all the time saying, no one will lose by trying to be a professional tennis player,” says Makhlouf. “No one will lose in their life, ever. Unfortunately, sometimes we only talk about one way.”

Makhlouf calls it the Roger Federer way: to end up as the best. But how about striving to be the best you can be? If you achieve that then you haven’t failed, far from it in fact.

“Let’s say, you select a player from Burundi,” he says. “They start travelling all around Africa, then maybe Europe, then they get a scholarship to go to the US and they get a degree. This person will come back to their country and can take a top job. Like Tapiwa Marobela, for example, he got a position with the Olympic committee. But people don’t see those opportunities as much.”

Thirty years of touring

It’s probably a safe assumption that no coach in the world has worked with players from as many different countries as Ivan Molina. The Colombian began with the ITF/Grand Slam Development Fund touring teams in 1987, travelling with 328 different juniors from 132 different countries in his time.

Each year, talented players from developing tennis nations are selected to play higher-level events outside their region, and Molina has been at the heart of the boys’ programme since its inception.

A former world No. 22, Molina is a tennis man to his core, and as he presented to delegates from all over the world at the conference his pride in those he has taught weaved through his speech. “The boys that have been part of the team have won all four Grand Slam junior tournaments in singles and doubles,” he beamed. “This year, by the way, Yu Hsiou Hsu won Australia, Wimbledon and US Open in doubles.”

But the programme hasn’t just produced junior champions. The most notable player to emerge to the professional ranks is three-time Roland Garros champion and former world No.1 Gustavo Kuerten. In total, seven players have cracked the top 10 with a further 30 breaking the top 100.