It was Serena Williams who said: “The success of every woman should be the inspiration to another. We should raise each other up.”
Williams has certainly been an inspiration to many during a phenomenal 27-year career that’s seen her becoming arguably the greatest tennis player in history. While she and her sister Venus were blazing a trail across the globe, thousands of kilometres away two young sisters were stepping on to a tennis court in Nairobi, Kenya, to forge a path of their own.
But unlike the Williams sisters, who were constantly shadowed by their ever-present parents, Angella Okutoyi and her sister Roselida Asumwa grew up without a mother or father. The twins’ mother died during childbirth, so they were taken in by their grandmother, Mary Omukuya Ndong’a.
Okutoyi, 18, is the one to have risen to the top of the Kenyan tennis ranks, driven to provide for her beloved grandmother and lift her out of poverty. “I love the fact that this sport will one day change my life,” she says with conviction. It already has – perhaps not to the degree she’s hoping just yet, but it’s headed in the right direction.
Okutoyi first picked up a racquet at the Loreto Convent Valley Road school in Nairobi at the age of four. By the age of 10, she had earned a place at the International Tennis Federation (ITF) East Africa Regional Training Centre in Burundi, where she spent two years. By 14, she’d become the youngest player to win the senior Kenya Open title, having also claimed the African Under-14 trophy just a week earlier.
Then, in her first outing to the junior Australian Open earlier this year, the then 17-year-old Okutoyi became the first Kenyan woman to win a junior Grand Slam match when she beat Italy’s Federica Urgesi in the first round. She went a step further, beating Australian Zara Larke in the second round before succumbing to Serbian Lola Radivojević in the third.
The last Kenyan to reach the third round at a major was Christian Vitulli at the junior US Open in 2005, while the last female Kenyan player to even compete at a junior Grand Slam was Susan Wakhungu in the 1970s.
It’s little wonder that the likes of tennis icon Billie Jean King and Oscar-winning actress Lupita Nyong’o were taking notice and hailing the budding star. “To make history here in Melbourne has been very special,” Okutoyi told the ITF at the time.
“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.”
Okutoyi was lauded on her return to Kenya. “l was really surprised, very surprised, because l didn’t expect it at all. It was the first time actually,” she said.
“l would say the Australian experience was really good and l really loved it so much … It has boosted my confidence a lot from where it was to now, and also the belief.”
Okutoyi is breaking records and creating a list of firsts as she progresses, but says simply: “Well, it feels good and I am happy to be able to be the one breaking those barriers.”
She points to a lack of funding as the possible reason Africa hasn’t produced more international stars in the past. The costs associated with travelling to tournaments around the world to compete and earn ranking points are indeed prohibitive.
Her coach Francis Rogoi says that with financial backing Okutoyi has the potential to excel on the WTA Tour. “She can go as far as playing the senior Grand Slams. For me, she is the next Serena Williams of Africa.” Rogoi represented Kenya at the Commonwealth Games, All Africa Games and in the Davis Cup.
“She stands out because of her exceptional skills on court,” he adds. “She is also focused to follow her dreams and the discipline of self-management keeps her in check. She plays an aggressive game style making it easier for her to dominate the other girls and ladies.”
So much so that when Okutoyi plays practice matches in Kenya, she does so with the men’s Davis Cup team because there aren’t any female players strong enough to challenge her.
Based in Nairobi, she is training full-time while studying online to complete high school.
“My long-term goal is to play on the biggest stages in tennis and to win a Grand Slam,” she says.
Her next major tournament will be the junior French Open in May, where she’ll be aiming to break even more barriers by progressing past the third round she reached in Melbourne. Okutoyi’s advice to young players who want to follow a similar path is simple: “Nothing is impossible. We just have to be determined, keep a positive mind and be hard-working.”
Sure enough, when quizzed about her own role model in the sport, Okutoyi points to Serena Williams “because I like how she plays, her fighting spirit, her courage and just how motivated she is on court”.
The iconic 23-time Grand Slam champion concluded her words of inspiration to women by saying: “Make sure you’re very courageous. Be strong, be extremely kind and above all be humble.”
Considering the many obstacles she’s overcome and what she’s achieved so far, Okutoyi is already all that.