What next for Rwandan tennis?

Last week, Austrian Gerard Melzer lived up to his pre-tournament billing as the favourite by winning the 2013 ITF Men’s Future Rwanda F1 tournament which concluded on Saturday at Umubano Hotel courts.
Bonnie Mugabe
Bonnie Mugabe

Last week, Austrian Gerard Melzer lived up to his pre-tournament billing as the favourite by winning the 2013 ITF Men’s Future Rwanda F1 tournament which concluded on Saturday at Umubano Hotel courts.

The 23-year-old-left handed Melzer, ranked 201 on the ATP rankings, edged out his compatriot Lukas Jastraunig with an easy straight sets win 6-1, 6-1 in just over an hour.

There was no Rwandan in the later stages of the competition as they were all sent packing in the first round of the tournament. Olivier Havugimana, Hakim Ntwali, Mathieu Uwizeyimana and Anatole Bizimana were all eliminated in the first round.

This was an exceptional year as top seeds Jean Claude Gasigwa and Dieudonne Habiyambere, who have each made over eight appearances in this competition, missed the week-long international tournament due to injuries.

The ITF Men’s Future remains elusive for Rwandan players ever since Eric Hagenimana reached the quarter-finals in 2006. Since then, the country has struggled to have any player to surpass Hagenimana’s record.

However, it’s not too late for the federation to be optimistic and put all their efforts in preparing the current crop of young players and nurture more young talents if the country is to shine in future competitions.

One would ask, what is the significance of this victory for Melzer to his Rwandan counterparts? There are indeed many lessons that local tennis federation can draw from this tournament that Rwanda is privileged to host every year.

Tennis is a sport, which undoubtedly has always gripped the attention of the world. The various events on the international calendar are hugely anticipated occasions for the media and tennis enthusiasts all over the world, including Rwanda.

In terms of cost comparison, for individual sports, say between golf and tennis. The latter is and should be relatively cheaper and easier to develop as well as promote by the authorities.

This is not an attempt to cast aspersions on the Rwanda Tennis Federation, but it is meant to assist the local body and its members to re-evaluate themselves in light of current state of affairs.

In our context, this state of affairs inevitably raises a number of questions. What is wrong with Rwanda tennis? Is the local federation satisfied with rate of development of the game in the country?

What can be done to accelerate the development of sport in the country and to produce world-class competitors?  Obviously, these questions do not have simple answers.

It is easy to point fingers at the local federation and blame the body for the stagnation or retrogression that seems to characterise the sports in the country.

It will be easy for the Rwanda Tennis Federation administrators and coaches to point out a number of disadvantages that militate against the rise of Rwandan superstars.

However, this does not change the facts on the ground that Rwandan tennis is lagging behind or developing at a snail’s pace, which is unacceptable considering the vast potential the sport posseses.

There is need for RTF to accelerate the development of coaches, both male and female. Highly qualified and experienced coaches are the foundation stone for excellence in any sport.

RTF should encourage the establishment of public and private tennis academies to provide rigorous training for talented youngsters.

There is also need to dramatically increase the number of high-level tournaments for youngsters in the country, the region and beyond in.

There is also need for RTF to entice corporate sponsors to have its own international tennis event(s) where the country’s talented youngsters can show-case their talents even on a regional level annually.

It is not about huge amounts of prize money but more about innovation through introducing new tennis initiatives and products for a country that is hungry for the game. We’re lucky that even President Paul Kagame is not only a big tennis enthusiast but he plays the game too in his free time.

I strongly believe that there is a need to rattle some cages in the country. Rwanda is in dire need of a paradigm shift, not just in RTF but also in almost every sports federation.

The era of business as usual belongs to the past. Sport is a business and needs to be run as such to foster excellence and professionalism.

ITF Futures are good for youngsters to measure how good they are against their peers from around the world, and to see if taking up the sport full-time is an option.

For the sport to get back to a pleasing level there should be need to develop young players through elite training academies in a bid to discover and unlock their potential.

We need to have top-grade junior events on a regular basis. These events will give the young kids the chance to see for themselves if they can have a future as professional players.

Without deliberately setting performance targets, RTF will stumble from one elective congress to another with very little to show for the passage of time in terms of value added or return on investment in the development of tennis in the country.

If the British had to wait 77 years to win the most prized tournament, Wimbledon which they host with great pride, how long are Rwandan tennis lovers going to wait for their own star to rise through these ITF tournaments?  I hope it does not have to be for 100 years or more!

RTF must work to ensure that these youngsters are identified and developed systematically. They are not just going to come or crawl out of the woodwork somehow.