Ismail Changawa: Tennis is life

What you need to know:

  • Unstoppable: Ismael has been the top-ranked player in the country since 2012

Ismael Changawa Ruwa Mzai holds the top spot in men’s tennis in the country. It has been almost a decade now since he ascended to the zenith.

His journey to stardom started at Mombasa Sports Club when he was five years old. Ismael says he was inspired into tennis by his cousin Faiz Khan and brother Juma Changawa.

“They shuttled the continent and beyond in aeroplanes to play tournaments. They also won awards. These made me want to be like them and that’s how I got into tennis,” explains Ismael who has no problem being called Ishmael by others.

Coming from a poor background, the Kenya Davis Cup team player attributes his talent to what he is today.

“My mother died when I was about 10 years old. I have not known much about my father’s  whereabouts since I was young. We were brought up by our grandparents who emphasized education. But I loved tennis, so I used to skip some classes at Sacred Heart primary school in order to go train,” the left-hander says.

With a mischievous smile, he recalls how he was one day caught out of class, attending a game.

“Thankfully, after sitting for the Kenya Certificate of Primary Education, I was able to concentrate on tennis. I landed a one-month scholarship at the International Tennis Federation (ITF) centre in South Africa which turned into a one-year renewable scholarship for five years after the centre saw potential in me,” he offers.

The star went to another ITF centre, this time in Casablanca in Morocco, on a one-year scholarship before joining Seminole State College in the USA from 2015 to 2018 where he is a Sports Science graduate.

All this while, the much-traveled player continued to play tennis, winning four Kenya Open titles along the way as well as the Rwanda Open, Uganda Open and Malawi Open.

His rise has been remarkable, but not without challenges.

“I have had nagging knee injuries but I’m now okay. Sponsorship has also been a challenge. Tennis is an expensive sport. Lack of sponsorship has really let me down. Had I got good support, I believe I would be some level near Kazakhstan’s Alexander Bublik, which is top 30 (currently 38th) on the ATP Tour,” admits Ismael who sings for fun.

Tennis has greatly shaped his life, he says.

“I grew up in the Ganjoni area. Were it not for tennis which has kept me busy throughout my life maybe I would be a gangster, drunkard or abusing bhang. Tennis has also helped me to achieve my long-term goal of opening a tennis academy to help nurture talents to perform even better than me,” says the third-born.

He achieved his goal of opening an academy during the outbreak of Coronavirus in 2020, at Muthaiga Country Club in Nairobi before moving to Peponi in Lower Kabete just two months ago. the Changawa Tennis Academy (CTA) currently has over 40 players.

Tennis has also promoted his music through the online channels. “Music relaxes my mind. Too much tennis can drive you crazy, so music is my happiness,” says Ismael adding that he has done close to 50 songs, most of them about love.

“I will drop an album soon titled Grandson in honour of our grandparents who raised up upon the death of our mother and have been there all our lives. I pray that they continue to live long,” says the sportsman.

“Some of the advice they gave me when I was young is that I should avoid girls and alcohol and that I should always choose good friends. ‘Work hard, so that you have your own house, a good life and fulfill your goals’,” the sportsman added.

Ismael appreciates his grandparents for what he says is a good upbringing. But they are not the only ones he owes his success to.

He acknowledges coaches Lawrence Karanja, Peter Rakuom and Elly Madegwa for sharpening his tennis journey as well as Rosemary Owino whom she says has fought for the Davis Cup team.

And then there’s his wife, Nicole Adhiambo to whom he heaps praises.

“My wife has always been there for me. She is actually the brains behind us starting a tennis academy and owning businesses. She has taught me how to save money,” he explains.

Before he met Nicole, Ismael was admittedly a spendthrift. He could spend as much as Sh50,000 of his money in a single day buying the latest fashion of clothes or a phone.

“But for the three years we have been together, she has shown me how to save and help the family back home. I love being corrected,” the left-hander admits.

Ismael adds, “She has actually turned out to be my mentor and she is now the manager and treasurer of CTA.  Without her, I couldn’t have bought a car last year. She told me to save for it and here it is. The car is now really helpful. I am now financially disciplined, thanks to her advice to ‘think about tomorrow’.”

He says the advice she gave him once came in handy during the Covid-19 outbreak.

For the aspiring tennis players, Ismail  urges them not only to dream on but to also work towards it, for “ every dream is valid”.

“I have come from nothing to something because of tennis. Remember to save your winnings and be disciplined. Also, learn to take counsel from wise people and as a tennis player, have fun while at it,” Ismael says.