Angella Okutoyi destined to be Kenya’s biggest ever tennis star

Angella Okutoyi

Kenya's Angella Okutoyi displays her World Tennis Tour W25 Women Singles finals Trophy at Nairobi Club on December 23, 2023.

Photo credit: Chris Omollo | Nation MEdia Group

What you need to know:

  • Okutoyi went on to claim gold in the final with an assured 6-2, 6-4 victory against another Egyptian Lamis Elhussein
  • Her spectacular progression has marked her out as a very special athlete, a generational player in Kenyan tennis
  • She wants to be the first Kenyan to win a Grand Slam

Move aside athletics, football and rugby. Tennis is on the cusp of owning the next genuine sports superstar from Kenya.

Not many people gave Angella Okutoyi, apart from perhaps herself, a chance against highly rated Egyptian Mayar Sheriff in the semi-finals of the African Games women’s singles tennis match at Tennis Complex, Accra a week today.

The ranking starkly illustrated the gulf between the two players with Okutoyi, at position 532 in the world compared to the Egyptian Olympiad’s 70.

Any good money would have bet on the North African prevailing.

In fact, a scrutiny of the rankings would have magnified the Herculean task Okutoyi was facing.

Sherif, was the highest ranked female tennis player at the 2023 Accra African Games and had sat at a career high position 31 eight months earlier. For good measure, she was, in fact, the second highest ranked African player in the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) world rankings after Tunisia’s Grand Slam regular Ons Jabeur (number 6) and the odds on favourite to clinch another Olympic ticket.

The 27-year-old Sherif had crushed Benin’s Eliaza Honfogo 6-0, 6-0 in the round of 32, blown away Zimbabwean Sasha Chimedza 6-1, 6-1 in the round of 16 and swatted Algeria’s Ibbou Ines 6-3, 6-3 in the quarters to set up a semi-final date with Okutoyi.

The rising Kenyan star also won all her matches without dropping a set on her way to the semis, but the formbook gave her as much chance as flooding not occurring on Nairobi roads when it rains.

The Egyptian certainly showed it, at least in the initial stages of the marathon 4hr 27min, tension-filled match, taking the first set 7-5.

However, Okutoyi, a quarter-finalist loser in Rabat 2019, showed just how far her game had advanced, superbly fighting back to take the second set 7-5 before holding her nerves to see off the experienced Egyptian 7-6 in the decisive third set.

Okutoyi went on to claim gold in the final with an assured 6-2, 6-4 victory against another Egyptian Lamis Elhussein.

A new Kenyan tennis queen had been crowned. A beautiful athlete approaching the peak of her powers. An impressive physical specimen, lithe, powerful, skilful and explosive. You needed to see how she moved on court to appreciate this.

Her spectacular progression has marked her out as a very special athlete, a generational player in Kenyan tennis.

Last Thursday, she became the first Kenyan to win an African Games women’s singles tennis gold medal since Jane Davies-Doxon in Algiers 1978.

Last year she won her first professional singles title ‘‘and not the last” she declared, the ITF World Tennis Tour W15 Monastir. This was the first pro title by a Kenyan since Paul Wekesa claimed the Andorra Challenger in1994.

In 2022, an 18-year-old Okutoyi competed in all the four Grand Slams junior competitions, becoming the first Kenyan to do so.

In January of that pivotal year, she became the first Kenyan girl to win a Grand Slam junior match, at the Australian Open. She reached the third round, another first for a Kenyan girl.

She went even further, teaming up with Dutchwoman Rose Marie Nijkamp to win the Wimbledon Junior Championship girls’ double crown. Needless to say, it was the first time a Kenyan was claiming such a prestigious honour.

She ended that year at a career high 49th position in the ITF junior rankings, as in, amongst the top 50 best age-grade players in the world. Wow!

No wonder dozens of salivating colleges offered her a sports scholarship. From the many suitors, she settled for Auburn University, Alabama and enrolled in January last year.

They will know she is a two-time Africa Under-18 women’s singles winner, her latest coming in 2021. Three years earlier, she won the 2018 Kenya Open women’s singles crown just shy of her 15th birthday.

This is not surprising, as she has been hitting tennis balls since she was four years old following encouragement from a local coach at Loreto Convent Valley Road.

Her talent saw her recruited in the International Tennis Federation East Africa Regional Training Centre in Burundi on a scholarship at the age of 10.

You cannot talk about Okutoyi without mentioning her deprived background and personal misfortune – her mother died while giving birth to her and her twin sister Roselidah Asumwa.

She confesses her life has never been easy and she hopes her success will inspire others.

She is quick to acknowledge the help she has received in her career while keeping her ambition burning like a savannah bush fire.

“All African Game finals. #Noweakness,” she wrote on X on the eve of her African Games final match.

After winning the gold medal on Thursday she tweeted: “All African Games. First I wanna thank GOD for getting me this far. Second wanna thank my team, my federation, NOCK, my school, people back home and everyone who l haven’t mentioned and my fans. This just means so much to my childhood dream coming to light participating at the @olympics. Hope this gives someone watching a belief that anything is possible #noweakness”.

She wants to be the first Kenyan to win a Grand Slam. To be a world number one.

At just 20, this brilliant girl is destined to become Kenya’s biggest and most successful tennis star.