Tennis may not be a popular sport discipline in Rwanda but over the last fifteen years, the game has produced some of the country’s celebrated icons such as the late Jean Claude Gasigwa, Dieudonne Habiyambere and Eric Hagenimana.
Currently, the game is not dormant either; new talent is being unearthed and being groomed and nurtured year-in, year-out. Saturday Sport brings you the most familiar and most promising talent- Ernest Habiyambere.
At 16, Habiyambere is currently ranked first in the East African region in the U-16 category and is fifth in Africa and 800th globally in the ITF World Junior rankings.
Who is Habiyambere?
Born on April 8, 1999 in Gikondo sector, Kicukiro to Emmanuel Habiyambere (RIP) and Julienne Uwingeneye, he is the first born in a family of three children, two boys and one girl. Together with his siblings, they were raised single-handedly by their mother after the death of their father in 2000.
“Growing up without a father feels terribly bad; thank God I have a brave mother who managed to struggle for me to become what I am today. I owe her a lot, and that is why I always strive to make her proud,” says the youngster.
Habiyambere attended Gikondo-based Saint Vincent primary school, before going to Bujumbura-based King school, from senior one to senior four and is currently studying at Casablanca-based Penifosta high school in senior six.
The Cercle Sportif tennis club player is a big fan of record 17-time grand slam champion Roger Federer of Switzerland and World number one Serbian Novak Djokovic. In his early days in the game, Habiyambere looked up to former Rwanda number one, Jean Claude Gasigwa who passed away on January 8.
Tennis was never Habiyambere’s favourite until 2009. The soft spoken youngster used to play football and acrobatics earlier on. Tennis was just a ‘by-the-way’ for him, atleast until when he was 10 years. Since his first day in tennis up to present, he is based at Cercle Sportif de Kigali.
“I used to play football and occasionally acrobatics but never was tennis among my options. The late Gasigwa is the man who introduced me to tennis in mid 2009, he was my neighbour back then in Gikondo. I owe him a lot, may his soul rest in eternal peace.”
Habiyambere did not take long to adapt to tennis life and a few months after taking up the game, he impressed coaches, especially in youth competitions, before landing a scholarship at the ITF High Performance Centre in Bujumbura, Burundi, from 2010 to mid-2013.
2013- a memorable a year
One of his memorable recollections of 2013 is finishing first runner-up at the 2013 ITF Africa 14 & Under championships in Nairobi, Kenya, consequently earning a one-year scholarship at the ITF High performance Centre in Morocco, from September 2013 through October 2014.
“2013 determined much about my tennis, I achieved a lot in that year, including the one-year scholarship to Morocco. Experience, resilience and self-confidence are three key things the one-year stint in Morocco boosted me with, striving to excel is what I will always fight for,” says Habiyambere.
In 2013, he took part in eight different international tournaments, playing 15 matches, winning seven and losing eight.
The tournaments include; Laperre Young Champions Cup (Hasselt, Belgium), Kreis Dueren Junior Tennis Cup (Cologne, Germany, Balle Mimosa Loire-Atlantique (Nantes, France), Windmill Cup (Velp, Holland).
Others were; Open des Jeunes Stade Francais, BNP Paribas Cup in Marnes la coquette (France), Kenya International Junior Championship in Nairobi, Nairobi International Junior Championships (Kenya) and ITF East African 18 and Under Junior Circuit (Nairobi, Kenya).
2014, life in Morocco
From September 2013 to October 2014, the vastly skilled youngster trained at the ITF High Performance Centre in Casablanca, Morocco and believes what he learnt for the one-year stint in the North African country made him a better athlete especially in terms of confidence and maturity on court.
He also admits that it was difficult to adapt to a new environment and lifestyle but was able to adapt in the first two months.
During 2014, he represented the country at the East African Junior Championships in Dar-es-Salam, Tanzania and managed to reach the semi-finals of both singles and doubles respectively. He also featured in regional competitions held in Bujumbura in the U-18 category but exited early.
As of today, the highly talented Habiyambere has already featured in three different international competitions, namely, East African 18&Under Championships in Dar-es-Salam in January, Kenya International Junior Championships in February in Nairobi and ITF African Youth (16&Under) Championships in March in Tunis, Tunisia.
At the Dar-es-Salam meet in January, he won two titles in singles and doubles but flopped in Nairobi where he played three separate tourneys and didn’t even reach quarter-finals of any of them.
At the African Youth Championships in Tunisia, the 16-year old Habiyambere was knocked out in the round of eight but finished fifth after winning a series of classification matches both in singles and doubles respectively.
Ambitions, hanger for professional career
At 16 years, Habiyambere is regarded as one of the top tennis stars in the country and has been tipped by local tennis federation officials, coaches and several close followers of the game to be the next national flag ‘carrier’ and to reach a level that has never been reached by any of his seniors before. The highly ambitious youngster is eager to register his name among the greats Rwanda has ever had not only in tennis but in all sports disciplines combined and believes being ranked in top five of the continent in the youth category shows his ability to reach higher levels in the next few years.
“I want to be among the best tennis players this country will ever have, I’m ranked among the top five in the continent in the U-16 category and I will fight to keep getting better every day. My target is to be among Africa’s top three tennis players of my generation, professional tennis is my dream career,” Habiyambere says.
Advice to fellow youngsters
Social, humble, and ambitious are three words to describe the youngster according to various fellow tennis players. Habiyambere advises fellow upcoming tennis players to stay calm, work hard, keep disciplined and stop rushing for quick money but focus on learning and improving their game every day.