When the venerable Margaret Court brought with her a reputation fortified by an unprecedented 64 grand slam titles (24 of which are singles!), Ugandan tennis seemed to get a spring in its step.
An enduring, impoverished cousin of its opposite numbers, Ugandan tennis did manage - with the help of Court - to serve and volley its way to the back pages of mainstream dailies such as The Daily Monitor.
Court had lots of kind words for Ugandan tennis, which was not astonishing in this day and age of political correctness. The Australian tennis legend said that as a teenager she had to beat odds similar to the ones aspiring Ugandan players face.
Hers, she added, was anything but a titled, if wealthy, family. It was impecunious just like the one of kids (predominantly hailing from the backwater of Naguru) that keep walking through the gates of Lugogo Tennis Club (LTC) Complex.
As Court fielded questions from the media at the fringes of LTC’s centre court, I watched a pre-teen girl frailly attempt an overhead volley.
Clearly, the kids had been told that a legendary figure was going to pop in and that they needed to put on a show. Sadly, smash-and-grab conquests for impressionable Ugandan tennis players are few and far between, if any.
Prevailing conditions don’t seem to provide fertile ground for that many overhead volleys. Unforced errors are instead raked in droves!
Last year, your columnist had the chance to pick the mind of Ugandan tennis stalwart John Oduke. An odd tennis tournament named Friday Explosion was being launched at the LTC. The tournament was supposed to see players vie for a paltry but nonetheless commendable Shs100,000 each Friday. Oduke, clad in a whitish sweatshirt, charcoal black polyester pair of shorts, and black trainers, had a sparkle in his eye. It was like he was sensing a crucial break.
A crosscourt winner, perhaps. Ugandan tennis is turning the corner, he told me barely hiding a grin.
I was much less optimistic. I wondered why no protracted attempt was being made by the Uganda Lawn Tennis Association (ULTA) to use schools as vehicle to popularise the sport.
Why don’t we, for instance, have a schools tennis competition similar to the Copa Coca-Cola schools tournament, I asked. It’s in the pipeline, a work in progress, Oduke stuttered.
I wasn’t convinced. I also expressed concern about the pencil thin ULTA calendar. Tournaments are being lined up, Oduke responded, pointing to the Friday Explosion.
Three Fridays later, the tournament was no more. It had suffered a stillbirth. It isn’t alone. Ugandan tennis is in comatose.
Court’s recent visit and words of support might have jolted it to life, but it won’t be long before it slips back into the abyss.
Residence: Perth, Western Australia
Born: July 16, 1942 (age 71)
Height: 5 ft 9 in (1.75 m)
Turned pro: 1960
Played as: Right-handed (1-handed backhand)
Australian Open: (1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966, 1969, 1970, 1971, 1973)
French Open: (1962, 1964, 1969, 1970, 1973)
Wimbledon: (1963, 1965, 1970)
US Open (1962, 1965, 1969, 1970, 1973)
Australian Open: (1961, 1962, 1963, 1965, 1969, 1970, 1971, 1973)
French Open: (1964, 1965, 1966, 1973)
Wimbledon: (1964, 1969)
US Open: (1963, 1968, 1970, 1973, 1975)
Cranes could do with more incisiveness
So, the national football team, The Cranes, finds itself stuck in a rut, staring down the barrel of a gun! Uganda’s 2-1 first leg loss in a 2015 Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) pre-qualifier on the island country of Madagascar means The Cranes have it all to do.
This was not how the script was supposed to read. The Cranes were expected to have bossed the first leg and made the return leg a dead rubber of sorts.
A pedestrian showing at the Stade Rabemananjara in the island country off the eastern coast of Africa has, however, put a cat amongst the pigeons.
With the genie out of the bottle, The Cranes could face the ignominy of biting the dust at the first hurdle if they don’t come up with the goods on May 31.
With away goals coming into the equation, Cranes coach, Milutin ‘Micho’ Sredojevic, knows that his team will have to put on a scoring master-class to guarantee a smooth qualification. Question, though, is what will be the source of the goals?
Uganda’s problems in Madagascar were, yes, painful to watch, but not novel. Failure of the team to press has long been a common ailment. A dearth of creativity in the middle has also made set-plays the key to unlocking Cranes’ goals.
The lack of bite in open play showed itself true during last weekend’s sheer drab showing in Madagascar. In yet another classic telltale of frail hope as opposed to firmness of purpose, Cranes players kept bombarding Madagascar’s box with aimless crosses. There was no structure to a pattern of play that hoped more for an error from the Malagasy than a piece of razzmatazz from a Cranes player.
This worried Micho and he is reported to have said as much during last Wednesday’s weekly Fufa media briefing.
Micho said that the only outfield players that were methodical in their approach were KCC FC winger/wing-back Brian Majwega and Soana FC attacker Francis Olaki. While Olaki brilliantly ran the channels, Majwega put in a fair share of decent crosses.
Maybe had Tonny Mawejje made the trip to Madagascar, he could have read Olaki’s runs better than Khalid Aucho and Geoffrey ‘Baba’ Kizito did.
Instead, it was left to Majwega’s crosses to salvage something for a dismal Cranes side. Majwega whipped 14 crosses into the Malagasy box during his 45-minute cameo.
Only six of those crosses, however, managed to find a Cranes attacker. One of the crosses found Hamis Kiiza, who had brilliantly attacked the Malagasy goalkeeper’s near post, but the Tanzania-based striker failed to apply a lethal finishing touch.
Majwega would nevertheless have the last laugh and Kiiza an atonement. Majwega’s 14th and final cross into the box saw Kiiza again attack the near post. This time the striker’s pressure was just about enough to draw a mistake -a handball - from which Uganda grabbed their equaliser.
It was by all accounts a forgettable day and The Cranes will have to push the envelope to exorcise the demons on May 31.
What we now know....
We know that the forthcoming Commonwealth Games in the Scotland’s largest city of Glasgow won’t be graced by Ugandan athletics’ marquee names.
We knew from the outset that reigning Olympic and World marathon champion, Stephen Kiprotich, was going to skip the Games to recharge his fast-fading batteries.
A subtle ailment that up-and-coming marathoner, Jackson Kiprop, suffered early this year put a big question mark on his appearance in Glasgow.
We now know that Kiprop won’t be featuring at the Games at all.
The doctor’s sheet advised Kiprop to sit out anything remotely linked to athletics for a year. Last week also saw another big name bite the dust. Moses Kipsiro looks set not to defend the 5,000m and 10,000m, he memorably won in India back in 2010. We know that Kipsiro has been churning in sick notes at various athletics meets that would make a medical almanac.
The final straw for the lad, who remarkably turns just 28 in September, came last weekend when he failed to feature in the Bangalore 10km road run. We know that also set to miss the Commonwealth Games is Dorcus Inzikuru.
The Arua Gazelle has been a far cry from the athlete who comfortably won the 2006 steeplechase title in Melbourne.
The 32-year-old has been trying a hand at marathons, but the powers that be don’t think she has the stature to hoist Uganda’s flag at the big time.