“Come on Gasigwa! Hit the ball to your advantage. Gasigwa, you can do this!”
The above phrases were the first memories that came to my mind when I received the news that Jean Claude Gasigwa had passed on while jogging last Thursday.
I covered several regional tennis tournaments in recent years featuring Gasigwa, from the Uganda Open and the Kenya Open to the ITF Money Circuits in Rwanda and Burundi, and Gasigwa was a constant participant whose only target was to win regardless of who the opponents were.
On my to-do-list on arrival at any tennis tournament was to check for particular names including Gasigwa, Duncan Mugabe of Uganda, of recent David Oringa from Uganda, Edgar Kazembe of Zambia and Kenya’s Allan Cooper before he retired.
That combination made for a beautiful sight and just the thought of how dramatic the games would get at the quarterfinals stage and beyond always culminated into a fascinating couple of days.
Whether Gasigwa won or not, he was always smiling. He always had this grin on his face that after a loss he was already talking about his plans to make amends in the upcoming tournament.
He shook his opponent’s hand and if it was a knockout game, he wished him good luck in the next game. On court, he was quite a sight, a fighter, resilient even when he was a set down and most of all a winner; he always looked at himself as a winner.
Gasigwa, just like any other tennis player, spoke to himself for encouragement during excruciating games that tested his mental, physical and emotional aspects for a winner has to endure all this. His favourite; “Come on Gasigwa!”
He was resilient; he fought till the last serve and kept his opponents guessing but, most notably, his good balance with his feet and lower body during contact which was vital to accomplish his accurate and well executed forehand shot.
His versatile forehand which provided for a masterpiece top spin and ability to flatten it out at times was his trademark that his opponents knew about but fell victim t, not just once but more often than not.
Every time he secured a point, he punched a fist in mid air and celebrated it like he had won an Olympic gold medal. He murmured an elongated “yes” under his breath and prepared to serve.
Whenever he figured that he was losing concentration, he walked to the fence, picked up his towel and rubbed his face before walking back to the base line ready to receive or serve for that matter.
His ability to remain composed in tough times like this was always visible in his eyes when he grasped his racket with both hands, bent over with chin up and faced his opponent ready to receive.
It is the ability to have a never-give-up attitude, the consistency and at the age of 31 years that had him focusing on a very successful year ahead.
According to the Rwanda Tennis Federation president Kassim Ntageruka, they had been chatting on WhatsApp about his plans for 2015. Gasigwa had a busy schedule ahead of him and, just like all of us, he had already outlined his targets for the New Year and how to accomplish them.
In fact, he was searching for a personal manager so he could concentrate on only playing but the uncertainty of life occurred to remind us that despite our diverse plans for our lives, it is the Lord that determines our lifespan.
Up until now, I still receive messages of people asking me what really happened to Gasigwa. On narrating the story of how Rwanda’s number one tennis player fell to the ground while jogging on a football pitch and breathed his last, they remain speechless.
Who would have thought that Gasigwa, a soft-spoken legend of his era would wake up one morning and carry through his routine tasks only to collapse during a training session and pronounced dead! He was not sick or feeling feverish. He was normal to the eye. Postmortem results, released last Friday, indicated he died a natural death.
The loss of a man who committed his entire life to the game of tennis and to representing Rwanda on the international scene; Gasigwa has left behind a legacy that can only be written alongside his name.
The charisma with which he sang the national anthem, the pride he carried on his shoulder whenever he donned a shirt with Rwanda at the back and the passion that engulfed his skin when he served for an ace will always dominate the memories of those who watched him play.
Despite the rivalry between Gasigwa and Mugabe, the Ugandan ace broke down in tears when he reminisced about his long time archrival but also a friend, a good friend and brother, one he shared a lot with at countless tournaments.
A tie between the two called for not less than four hours of entertaining, mindboggling and engaging tennis that captured fans from all walks of life. It is unbelievable that we shall not watch anything like that again.
It is sad, heartbreaking and tragic because Rwanda, the East African region and the African continent has lost a legendary son who dedicated his life to this beautiful game.
Abraham Lincoln once said, “In the end, it is not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years.”
Gasigwa represented Rwanda at the 2007 and 2011 All Africa Games in Algeria and Mozambique, respectively, as well as almost 100 tournaments since 1998. Rwanda will miss you Gasigwa. Fare thee well friend.