As Serena Williams retires, enters Kenyan tennis star Angella Okutoyi

Angella Okutoyi

Kenyan tennis prodigy, Angella Okutoyi during a training session as her coach Francis Rogoi (background) looks on in Nairobi on April 26, 2022.

Photo credit: Tony Karumba | AFP

What you need to know:

An adoring fan of Serena Williams, Angella Okutoyi, 18, tennis career has seen a meteoric rise from a one–roomed house to global recognition. Like her role model Serena, her eyes are set on the highest prize

In her own words, Serena Williams said that she loved to win. She loved to battle and entertain. Tennis was her life.

How else would you describe it when she first picked the racket when she was barely three?


When she announced her exit last month through an article she wrote for Vogue Magazine, it evoked many feelings. Some of her fans were in awe. Some quarters could only manage a “wow” while others typed “Serena?”  Unbelievable.


As the curtains draw for the woman who is widely considered the “GOAT” because of her domination of tennis for more than two decades, another tennis player emerges on stage. Our own, Angella Okutoyi.


The 18-year-old is currently in New York for the US Open Junior Championships, the same competition that was William’s goal when she started to play tennis.


Inspiration

At a time when tennis is generating a big buzz, it is hard not to talk about Okutoyi. The impression she left after the Wimbledon win was indelible.

It was a first for Kenya since Susan Wakhungu’s win in 1978, as she told Saturday Magazine that Serena Williams is her inspiration.


“I admire her fighting spirit while on the court and the fact that she is very hardworking. I remember there is a time she competed while pregnant. That was really admirable.


Also, we come from humble families. They were not rich yet she pushed through in tennis and is now an icon. And she also plays with her sister, Venus just like I do with my twin sister, Rosie,” she said.


Her popularity 


While some people were hearing about her for the first time after the Wimbledon win, Okutoyi has been in the limelight since her childhood. In 2014, when she was 10, Angella received a scholarship to join the ITF East Africa Regional Training Centre in Burundi and made her International debut the same year.

At 14, she won the Africa Junior Championship and was the youngest player to win at the Kenya Open which was held the same year at Nairobi Club upsetting three-time former champion, Shufaa Changawa. 

“I have been winning. I even won in Australia but I did not receive this much attention. Do you know that Kenya Airways flew me back to Kenya and gave me an opportunity to sit in the cockpit and watch the plane land? On disembarking, there were tens of people waiting for me with ululations, songs, and dances,” she shared after her arrival from London.


The Wimbledon win where she partnered with Rose Marie Nijkamp, a tennis player from the Netherlands has earned her admiration, fame, and accolades from ordinary people to celebrities with prodigious influence like Lupita Nyong'o. 


She has since been awarded membership by Nairobi Club and Karen Country Club as well as clinched the LG/SJAK Sports Personality of the month of July.

Professional tennis player and Wimbledon Juniors double Champion Angella Okutoyi when she arrived at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport on Monday, July 11, 2022. PHOTO | DENNIS ONSONGO


When a journalist asked how she felt having made history, Okutoyi beamed, nodding affirmatively, and gave a giddy laugh, before saying that she was happy and hoped she would inspire other girls in Kenya. In a pinned post on her Instagram page, she says, “YES, WE CAN.”


Childhood

The thing about Angella Okutoyi is that she is not just a tennis player, keen-eyed and swaddled in fame. She is simply not a symbol of a new vision or hope for the country. Nor is she merely something of a national hero—a winner of championships that put Kenya on the tennis world map.


She wants the whole hog. Just like her role model Serena, she wants to become the world’s number one tennis player and win as many grand slams as possible. Finally, to make her grandmother proud.



Childhood

Okutoyi alongside her twin sister, Roselida Asumwa, also a tennis sensation, and whom Angella hopes to see receiving as much support as herself, had a rough childhood.


Their mother died shortly after their birth and they were taken in by their grandmother Mary Ndong’a who surrendered them to an orphanage before reuniting with them at about seven months. 

“My grandmother is my biggest motivation. I think of her when I am playing and on my travels. She has gone through a myriad of challenges to see us through in various aspects of our lives. We were almost being adopted but she chose to raise us herself.

I had a sick aunt who survived on an oxygen tank and she was her caregiver. It was a tough journey for her—getting medication, taking her to hospital, working, and taking care of us. Yet amidst all those frustrations and problems not even once did she lash out at us. On our part, my sister and I were also very understanding of the family’s economic situation. In addition to being our grandmother, she is our mother and father. I want to make her dreams come true,” Angella said.

The twin sisters were brought up at the servants’ quarter of Loreto Convent Msongari where her grandmother has been working as a janitor for the past 27 years. For their education, they were enrolled at Mbagathi Primary School. Angella would later enroll for online classes at Penn Foster, an online program based in the USA, and EdOptions, a virtual form of learning.  Homeschooling meant more time dedicated to playing tennis. Even though her twin sister did not get the same privilege, she has also been making a name for herself in the tennis world with wins like the 2020 East African Junior championships doubles.


Introduction to Tennis

Angella reveals that her entry into the sports was by happenstance. “My then-coach Joe Karani is the one who introduced me to it. There is a tennis court at Loreto and he was training some children when we walked past. He told my grandmother that we could join in. I was about four when I started to play,” she shared. 

Some quarters have likened her to America’s tennis player, Serena Williams. They say, “She is our Serena.” 

These words fan her shots. “Serena is my idol. I like her fighting spirit at the court and that she puts in the work. In my perspective, she is my idea of success—and of course, putting Kenya on the global map,” she said.


Kenya being a non-traditional tennis nation, mostly excelling in athletics games, Okutoyi hopes that her wins will motivate the government and other stakeholders to invest in tennis.


“We have good courts but we require high-performance training centres. Also, support in terms of finances because some young people interested in the sport come from very poor backgrounds,” she said.


Speaking early this year, Cabinet Secretary Amina Mohamed said the government had already acquired the titles for the land and signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Tennis Kenya for the construction of the facility that will be open to the public. The project has been in the pipeline since 2019.


On her part, the 18-year-old says that she needs to work more on her confidence. “I want to build my capability in playing singles. When I paired with Rose I didn’t know that I could do well in doubles and now that I did, I want to do better in singles.”


Her love for Tennis


Okutoyi’s Instagram platform encapsulates her love for tennis.  Almost all her photos and videos are about the sport. She details where she has been, sometimes who has interacted with and where she is headed next. It is on this platform that she met her Wimbledon partner.


“Tennis is my plan A. I would want to do this on a full-time basis and that is why I go all out and I don’t let my achievements get into my head. However, my backup plan is to pursue a course in business management and venture into the beauty industry. I enjoy dressing up so I want to have my own style. A girl that plays tennis and is stylish,” she surmised. 




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