February 29, 2024

Okutoyi sets her sights on more success

Okutoyi sets her sights on more success
Angella Okutoyi

There was further joy and much-deserved acknowledgment when Okutoyi dispatched another qualifier, this time Zara Larke of Australia, in round two and equalled the previous best result of a Kenyan junior at a Grand Slam.

Her Australian Open Junior Championships adventure may be at an end, but the achievements of Kenya’s Angella Okutoyi have received worldwide acclaim and will stand the test of time.

Kenyan sporting icons, actors, comedians and musicians, not to mention global tennis stars such as Billie Jean King, have all made contact in recent days to pass on their congratulations as Okutoyi’s momentous run to the third round grabbed headlines and captured imaginations.

By defeating Italian qualifier Federica Urgesi in the first round, the 17-year-old became the first Kenyan girl to record a Junior Grand Slam match-win, while she was already the first since 1978 to even compete at a major.

There was further joy and much-deserved acknowledgment when Okutoyi dispatched another qualifier, this time Zara Larke of Australia, in round two and equalled the previous best result of a Kenyan junior at a Grand Slam.

Christian Vitulli reached the third round at the US Open Junior Tennis Championships in 2005, and while victory over Serbia’s Lola Radivojevic would have seen Okutoyi surge into the quarter-finals and make further history, it was not to be.

Okutoyi, who is a member of the Grand Slam Development Fund/ITF Touring Team in Melbourne, succumbed 6-2 6-3, although it remained a Junior Grand Slam debut to savour for a player eager to represent her nation with pride and distinction.

“To make history here in Melbourne has been very special,” Okutoyi told itftennis.com. “I am happy that people in Kenya have been able to see that and they, together with African players more generally, realise they have a chance to do the same.

“In Kenya, most people who play tennis are not well-off. Their families, like mine, don’t have much and I just want to encourage them and say that situation doesn’t mean they cannot reach here, and it doesn’t define them.

“It can actually give them a drive and a motivation to do good.”

Now she has had a taste of Junior Grand Slam action and sparkled under that particular spotlight, Okutoyi has no intention of being a one-hit wonder and has set her sights on further trendsetting antics on the sport’s big stages.   

“This can be a springboard for me,” said Okutoyi, who currently sits No. 71 in the junior world rankings. “If here I just came to enjoy, next time I am coming to win and I believe I can do.

“Coming to just enjoy, I made the third round. What if I came here and my goal is to win? Maybe I can actually do it. The biggest lesson this week has been that it doesn’t matter where you come from, you have to believe.

“Belief is what I had throughout my matches. We are all good tennis players, and it doesn’t matter what the ranking is, it matters who is more tennis strong.”

Okutoyi’s tennis journey began well away from the glare of a Grand Slam. Indeed, she is a product of the Junior Tennis Initiative (JTI), having been enrolled in the programme aged four.

The JTI is the national 14-and-under junior development programme for a National Association, supported by the ITF, and provides increased participation opportunities and identifies talent for focused development.

Displaying all the hallmarks of an accomplished individual with significant potential and having consistently starred for Tennis Kenya national teams, Okutoyi was invited to join the ITF East Africa Regional Training Centre in Burundi in 2014.

“I remember the first time I saw Angella – it was October 2013 during my development visit to Kenya,” Thierry Ntwali, the ITF Development Officer for East and Central Africa, tells itftennis.com.

“Joe Karanja, a former JTI Coordinator asked me to see a talented 10-year-old girl. I was so impressed by her level that I immediately thought of offering her an opportunity to join the ITF Regional Training Centre in Burundi.

“Angella joined in February 2014 and was able to combine training with studying as she looked to maximise her chances of making it as one of the game’s future stars.”

Returning to Kenya two years later, Okutoyi continued her development and tennis education at the ITF East Africa High Performance Centre in Nairobi, the nation’s capital city.

Her progression has continued to follow an upward trajectory and last year proved her most successful season to date as she topped the podium at three ITF World Tennis Tour junior tournaments, including a career-best title at the ITF/CAT African Junior Championship at Sousse in November.

A Junior Grand Slam was the next logical step as Okutoyi sought to immerse herself in a highly-competitive, results-driven environment with the very best junior players on the planet.  

Aided by membership of the Grand Slam Development/ITF Touring Team, it has been an opportunity which Okutoyi has grasped with both hands, and one which gives Ntwali, and all those who have influenced her career, huge satisfaction.

“You cannot imagine the enormous happiness and pride I feel right now as one of Angella’s coaches and given her association with the ITF Centres,” said Ntwali.

“I am so happy for Angella, for whom playing a Grand Slam was one of her greatest ambitions, with her main objective now to finish her junior career as a top-20 player.

“The joy I feel is also joy for the teams at the ITF Centres: coaches, physiotherapists, physical trainers, teachers and support staff. I also want to acknowledge the immense joy that Francis Rogoi – a big coaching contributor to this success – is having right now.”

Following her second-round victory in Melbourne, Okutoyi was a red-hot topic of conversation throughout Africa, with her name trending on social media as well-wishes poured in from every quarter.

Dr. Amina Mohamed, the Cabinet Secretary for Sports, Heritage and Culture in Kenya led the chorus of approval, while some of the biggest names from the country’s sporting landscape, past and present, followed suit.

Sprinter Ferdinand Omanyala, boxer Christine Ongare and tennis legends Paul Wekesa and Susan Wakhungu – the last girl before Okutoyi to feature at a Junior Grand Slam back in the 1970s – were among those to show their support.

Having played such a key role in Okutoyi’s ascent, Tennis Kenya are now witnessing a phenomenal response to her exploits in Melbourne, with participation already receiving a boost courtesy of the country’s latest role model.

“Tennis Kenya is extremely proud of Angie and the hard work and resilience she showed in each match she contested at the Australian Open,” Tennis Kenya General Secretary, Wanjiru Mbugua-Karani, told itftennis.com.

“By following Angie’s matches, Kenyans’ interest in tennis has piqued and she has been trending on Twitter. Her performance has inspired Kenyans around the country to sit up and take notice of her and tennis in general.

“It has inspired a lot of JTI players to keep working as they have now seen a snapshot of what it looks like to start in the JTI and end up at the Grand Slams.

“In just two weeks, the interest in Angella has generated a lot of queries about tennis participation. It has also energised and galvanised Kenyan tennis legends back to the game, inspiring conversations on how they can give back.

“We now hope this will motivate Angella to do better and to get the sponsors she so needs. Because the bar has been set high by Angella, we know it will inspire participation in the game and it will raise the level of tennis in Kenya.”

She is still so young, but Okutoyi is already a national treasure and, while the future is not ours to see, this gem would appear ready to glisten.