Mark Ssali

Plight of Ugandan sport captured by gifted little-knowns on centre court

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Youngster Oringa is one of the decent tennis players in the country who is also featuring in the more rewarding sport of cricket.

Youngster Oringa is one of the decent tennis players in the country who is also featuring in the more rewarding sport of cricket. photo by ISMAIL KEZAALA. 

By Mark Ssali

Posted  Tuesday, December 24  2013 at  02:00
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As the ball repeatedly flew over the net back and forth, bounced off the dirt and rebounded off racquet strings, I sat there contemplative and bemused as the actuality Ugandan sport unfolded right before my eyes, the entirety of our hope and despair all captured in one go.

It was Saturday afternoon and I was watching the final of the UTA Juniors Masters, one of the many tournaments that litter the tennis calendar these days, some of which go virtually unnoticed.

The country’s sports predicament was so simply yet vividly captured in the nature of this match, the sporting stories of the two boys slugging it out in the sweltering heat, and everything else around centre court.

On one side of the net was Simon Peter Ayella, the tall, powerfully built son of Uganda’s greatest tennis player of all time, John Oduke. From what I can see, unlike a good many Ugandan sporting legends of his kind, Oduke does not lead the life of a pauper; but he has evidently not reaped anywhere near as much from the game as his talent, commitment, love and sacrifice as a player, administrator and coach would warrant.

Oduke has taught his son the game really well, but is perhaps powerless to stop the boy opting for cricket, which is in reality more rewarding with trips abroad, money and all else.
Ayella plays cricket for Uganda Charity Trust Fund, an organisation which has taken care of him (tuition and all) along with several multi-talented youths from the Naguru area, including the top tennis players David Oringa and Henry Muyanja. Like most of the boys, Muyanja plays cricket too, and now works for that organisation.

Ayella lost this final 7-5 6-1 to Henry Ayesiga, a kid from a tennis family (he had two other brothers in the tournament), who has made his way into Nairobi’s Sadili Sports Academy along with a handful of other Ugandans. Ayesiga, apparently a top ten junior on the African continent, is so serious about his tennis career he will readily pull out his laptop to help you with information if you asked about his career and rankings.

Unlike Ayella, at 18 Ayesiga looks like he is not going to grow much taller and will have to settle for being a small pro. If his game continues to develop at the current pace, height will not be too much of a problem as tennis has a long list of short-guy successes, from slam winners Michael Chang and Lleyton Hewiitt to current world top eight Richard Gasquet.

Between Ayella’s powerful serves and stingy forehands, and Ayesiga’s double-handed backhands, deft drop shots and athletic court coverage, there was good tennis to watch, but not many viewers.

The scenario was in stack contrast to the schools competitions back in my time.
At St Mary’s College Kisubi there would be a mighty scramble for places on the school truck to go and cheer on Cedric Babu, Victor Rumanyika and Paul Busharizi against the country’s top juniors, especially the Jinja crew of Renato Sebbi, the Lwanga brothers Mustapha and Shaban, and the late Charles Yokwe, to very huge crowds at this same Lugogo Arena.

No press
This time there was no press presence except for me, and I had only gone to Lugogo to get served a local lunch under a tree, rather than queue up at the new KFC or the old Nandos, before being dragged to courtside by UTA official Victor Drile.

Oduke was in the stands, and Uganda’s best player of the current generation by some distance - Duncan Mugabe - was taking pictures on courtside, for himself or perhaps on behalf of tournament sponsors Kinetic, the company owned by current UTA boss Babu.

Mugabe is the role model Ayella, Ayesiga and the rest are looking up to, but admittedly his career should be further ahead of where it is at the moment. If you have followed the story of Ugandan sport, this Saturday afternoon tale of Oduke the father, Ayella the son, Ayesiga the prospect, Babu the boss, Mugabe the superstar and Ssali the coerced observer copiously captures its plight, and tennis is no different from the other disciplines.

So, when Drile tells me of a newly crafted five-year strategic plan to finally, belatedly take the game to new heights, I am eager to see its contents and subsequent implementation.

mmssali@yahoo.com, @markssali on twitter