Halima Gikandi/The World
Even since 18-year-old Angella Okutoyi's Wimbledon win last month, she's been getting a lot of attention at home from aspiring tennis players. Her ascension in the sport comes after a long road of hard work, perseverance and determination against the odds.
At the hallowed courts of Wimbledon last month, 18-year-old Angella Okutoyi swung her racket with a strong forehand, determined to win her doubles match.
When she did, the crowd erupted into cheers.
“Kenya, for the first time ever, has a Wimbledon champion, and her name is Angella Okutoyi,” the announcer said.
A month later, that high has not yet worn off.
"I was crying and it was really emotional,” Okutoyi said from the Nairobi Sports Club, where she practices.
“It has always been my dream to be in the Grand Slam and to win a Grand Slam title for my country.”
That dream comes after a long road of hard work, perseverance and determination against the odds.
Halima Gikandi/The World
Okutoyi first picked up the racket when she was 4 years old, at a time when she and her family often struggled to make ends meet.
Her mother died during childbirth, so she and her twin sister were raised by their grandmother.
"It wasn’t easy while growing up. I remember there were times [when] we didn't have [a] meal and I would still go and practice and play,” she said.
“Maybe the only meal I would see was dinner, and maybe dinner was just water. But we’d still survive.”
Tennis came as a welcome relief amid the struggles of daily life.
“I just remember myself being happy on a tennis court,” Okutoyi laughed, adding that those tough years also gave her the mental toughness required to succeed as an athlete.
Okutoyi grew up in a country known more for its runners, but she benefited from role models like Serena Williams, who proved that excellence and grit could outmatch resources and background.
"I know her background is kind of like mine. She didn't grow up in a [well-to-do] family, but she's still managed to achieve what she has achieved. So she's really inspirational for me,” Okutoyi said.
For the people around Okutoyi, it was obvious that she had the potential to go professional; at 6 years old, she was already winning tournaments against much older kids.
"Since those days, they were telling me I'm really good in tennis and I can be the best,” she explained.
“I believe from what I've been doing, winning the trophies when I was young, I think that's when I got the belief and the confidence that maybe I can actually be good in this sport of tennis,” Okutoyi added.
That early confidence has bolstered her as she’s traveled around the world, competing in tournaments against people with better facilities, resources and often more privileged backgrounds.
Okutoyi’s ascendance comes at a time when the makeup of the sport has radically changed in Kenya, where it was once a sport reserved for the wealthy.
Veronica Osogo, a tennis coach who teaches private lessons at the same club, said Okutoyi is already inspiring a new generation of tennis players in Kenya.
"In the past years, the children who've been playing tennis in Kenya are mostly from the underprivileged communities,” said Osogo, who also runs the Zion Zone Tennis Foundation, which teaches tennis to disadvantaged children in Nairobi’s slums.
“So, it just changed the notion that it has to be for the rich."
Since Okutoyi won at Wimbledon, she’s been getting a lot of attention at home.
“If you come here on Saturday or the neighboring club, it's full. It's parents bringing the children," Osogo said. “Every time you turn around it’s: 'Angela has done it,'” Osogo said.
While facilities in Kenya are still lacking, she said that Okutoyi has shown Kenyans they can excel at the sport despite the limitations.
"Now I can say the future of tennis in Kenya, it's really bright,” Okutoyi said.
While Okutoyi aims to be the best, she hopes to see Kenya’s future players “do greater things than what I've done."
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