From near oblivion: Uganda Tennis Association have served away the fears, now seek winning aces

Smiles Of Success. UTA chairman Babu (seated centre) alongside coaches; legendary Oduke (L) and Odockcen with the victorious 12 & Under Team of Boys and Girls that lit up Kampala last year. PHOTOS/EDDIE CHICCO 
 

What you need to know:

The academies that get credit from JTI for the heavy lifting thus include Tennis For All Uganda, Let’s Play Tennis Uganda, Kabira Country Club, Sporting Chance, Prodigy Sports Academy, Lugogo Sports Club, Kinetic Trust Tennis Academy, Mukono Tennis Academy, Kampala Club and Tena Tennis Academy.

Tennis have had their equal share of trials and tribulations. If you were a partisan tennis follower in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and still had the guts to follow the racket-game just before the Covid-19 pandemic, from the many highs to hitting rock bottom you would fall short of how to describe the state of affairs in both eras.

Easily one of the most loved disciplines with multi-faceted athletes like Charles Yokwe (RIP), Herbert Buyinza, James Komakech and Renato Sebbi to mention but a few including the all-conquering John Oduke in the last quarter of the previous century, the period before the pandemic saw the game crawling on its knees and forthwith fighting for breathing space in a crowded arena that has 51 sports disciplines trying to catch the same air.
The years before the sport even got onto its knees, the bitter truth is that tennis in Uganda could have gotten extinct.  
Uganda Tennis Association (UTA) found themselves in a death trap when they allowed the burden of affiliation fees to ‘helplessly’ pile up.

Story of resurrection
“We accumulated some affiliation fees arrears between 2007 to 2010 and that is when International Tennis Federation (ITF) and Confederation of African Tennis (CAT) took away our membership,” UTA chairman Cedric Ndilima Babu recalls of the turbulent times and how they emerged out of them with help from National Council of Sports (NCS) and several other stakeholders before the suspension was officially lifted on January 1, 2018.

“To regain the same, we have had to pay $6,000 (about Shs22m then) per year since our full suspension in 2010 plus the arrears between 2007-10 hence totaling to $50,000 (an estimated Shs182m back then),” 
The game had been in limbo for seven years. Talent that had sprouted fell off the radar and it was the other sports that benefitted especially those within the Lugogo Sports Complex. The national hockey, golf, cricket and boxing teams do actually have a handful of former tennis players in their ranks.

Product Of JTI. Edna Nabiryo Lovinsa will be making her senior debut have started out as part of Uganda’s highly-rated 12 & Under Girls Team in 2020. PHOTOS/UTA MEDIA - MORRIS OCAN
 

In 2018, UTA stood up from its fall itching for a clean slate. But the going was always going to be tough as witnessed by the national men and ladies teams shifts at the Davis Cup and Fed Cup (now renamed Billie Jean King Cup) respectively.
The talent was very evident but the players were out of sorts on the international scene. The lack of match exposure showed and injuries were quick to bite their not so well-conditioned bodies.
Lugogo Tennis Club (LTC) executive had even acted first to re-introduce the game’s youth to a competitive atmosphere – The Kampala Premier Tennis League (KPTL) but it was never going to be enough for players going to play well-polished sides with so much at stake.

Second time unlucky or lucky?
And when the pandemic bit hard, UTA could have been forgiven for thinking that lightning had struck twice. And rightfully so, it was twice unlucky for them as their recently revived sports was now oscillating between a stop-start mode. 

“Fall down seven times, stand up eight,” – a famous Japanese inspiration quote easily meaning; “One’s ability to choose to never give up hope,” is one in particular tennis employed.
When the Covid-19 pandemic relented, tennis were among the first two disciplines alongside golf to get swinging again.
“We kicked off before Covid-19 ended with the several underage competitions thanks to the works of several academies,” says Babu putting ever so clear that it was tennis were looking to make their ‘Third Coming’ count.
UTA were leaving nothing to chance as they threw all their weight to grassroots development. The 10 academies in their stable had full-time coaches running traffic on a daily basis and the monthly tournaments offered the icing on the cake as the children got to bask in the glory with podium finishes. 

Things may not be as rosy as it was in the yesteryears when Oduke tormented the region and won 12 Uganda Open titles but the worst of the storm has been ridden albeit the lingering cries of funding and players welfare.
“I believe we have the best U-12 team on the continent. Our grassroots development structure is now rated as among those that are the best in the world. Not many federations can boast of what we have. We have teams right from 8 & Under to 18 & Under that can represent us at all competitions,” passionate-speaking Babu added.

When Uganda won the regional 12 & Under title in 2021, the boys were unlucky not to play at the African Junior Tennis Championship (AJTC) as a resurgence of coronavirus put paid to their travel. 
The boys and girls’ 12 & Under, 14 & Under and 16 & Under national teams are all fresh from muscling for regional honours at the Ecology Club, Integrated Polytechnic Regional Center (IPRC) in Kicukiro District, Kigali City – something that was previously unheard of to have six junior teams play away from home on consecutive weekends.

Positive JTI strides
Dhaanvi Dechamma, the captain of Uganda’s 12 & Under team, is the reigning Kenya National Junior Open champion – a feat he attained in April and is one of the fruits of the hard work put in by never-tiring youthful coaches like Edward Odockcen.
“This is the way to go,” starts UTA Administrator Alvin Mboijana Bagaya.
“The Junior Tennis Initiative (JTI) has been the driving force in raising the numbers. It doesn’t offer cash but it gives things that cost money like rackets, nets, balls and strings to academies.”

The JTI is an ITF campaign , run by every federation, to grow the sport all over the world. When Uganda was readmitted in 2018, JTI was relaunched. 
“We are already benefiting from the programme as it has given us a base to know the next 12 & Under team six years from now. When a kid is six years, we identify the talent and work with it,” adds Bagaya, who is also the JTI National Coordinator.
“Academies have sprouted. We have 10 registered academies with six very active. We have a league running every week from 8 & Under to 16 & Under and there is an end of month knockout championship. We have ticked the boxes in numbers growth and competitions. From almost nothing desirable, we have over 500 children in these academies.” 

The academies that get credit from JTI for the heavy lifting thus include Tennis For All Uganda, Let’s Play Tennis Uganda, Kabira Country Club, Sporting Chance, Prodigy Sports Academy, Lugogo Sports Club, Kinetic Trust Tennis Academy, Mukono Tennis Academy, Kampala Club and Tena Tennis Academy.
From their efforts, Uganda have been able to produce award winning players on the regional level. The 12 & Under Boys team have won two of the last three regional championships. The girls have been bronze medalists for the last two years and were champions in 2019. The early signs show that if JTI takes root in schools, then it will catch like a wildfire with Uganda becoming a home of the region’s most talented players.
“Four years ago, we started this programme and are happy that we do have some success stories today,” legendary Oduke said soon after the 12 & Under Boys booked tickets on the airbus to Morocco for the AJTC this year. 

“Uganda was previously known as a tennis powerhouse in the region and the youngsters are showing exactly that after just grasping the basics. Our goal is to be the best in the region.”
Babu might be in his final term of his eight-year reign as UTA but he’s not put down the tools of work yet. The man who has served for eight years wants to take the back seat and continue supporting silently but that’s after he’s left the game in a better place.

Unhappy & Happy. Ayella (L), a son to the legendary Oduke, will not be in Kigali. Dr Ogwel is however happy with journey taken by UTA thus far.
 

Mission at hand
Today, the men’s team heads out to Kigali for the Africa Group IV Qualifiers of the Davis Cup seeking better fortunes than what the team managed in Congo Brazzaville 2021.
Oduke leads the new-look side as captain and coach for the side with debutants Joel Mwisukye, Ronald Nasawali, Godfrey Darius Ocen and Edward Birungi, who has been there before, in the mix.  

“All the four are quarterfinalists of the National Tennis Open Championship which makes them among the current best eight players. Nasawali and Ocen even made the semifinals. This speaks a lot about the progress they have made since 2018,” explained Bagaya.
Tomorrow morning, the ladies team flies out to North Macedonia for the Billie Jean King Cup with Odockcen playing the coach-captain role. Winnie Birungi, fresh from a one-month training camp in France, will represent the Pearl of Africa alongside familiar faces in Maggie Flavia Namaganda and Edna Nabiryo Lovinsa.

“These girls are genuinely very young and the exposure they will get is going to be for a lifetime as they grow through the ranks. Good thing for us is that they are products of JTI and these are the rewards we are starting to see. They’re also school-going and will be our ambassadors in schools to ensure that the game grows at the secondary school level, too!” stated Bagaya, a quality left-arm orthodox spinner and useful lower-order batsman in his heyday.
“We are taking very young teams to gain the relevant experience early enough. These players have shown technically and tactically that they’ve improved a lot in their game. 
“We have over 30 to 40 children in the U-12 and U-14 categories at almost the same level. We are now planning to have the biggest-ever Uganda Open in either October or November with categories right from the U-10s to the Veterans category. We could even incorporate the National Wheelchair Open in it,” added Babu, who is a former Davis Cup player.

Funding a must
Uganda tennis has come a long way and, like many other sports disciplines, will feel they don’t get the credit they deserve but National Council of Sports (NCS) General Secretary Dr Patrick Bernard Ogwel is quick to dispel their fears.
“Tennis have shown that they have the potential to thrive again. They have underage tournaments that fall into our priority plan of developing the game from the grassroots. That is why they have been listed among the top disciplines with ring-fenced funding. We care about tennis that is why we paid about £20,000 (Shs90m) to get them readmitted by ITF and CAF,” opened up Ogwel.

UTA are also quick to salute NCS for paying their annual fees to ITF ($5,500 – Shs20m) and CAT ($800 – Shs2.7m) for at least the last three years as the local sport’s running body as the association strived to return to normalcy. Primarily the sport has its funding tied to events they host.
Just last week, news filtered through that Shs47.8b had been set aside for funding sports in the 2022/23 national budget but tennis, like many, weren’t necessarily too happy with the allocation.

There has been an ongoing debate in sports circles on what parameters should be used to allocate funding to federations. Things like popularity and performance have been put forward. Tennis, too, are among the 15 sports that will share Shs3b and have Shs200m each ring-fenced for their activities. 
“We are grateful to NCS as they’ve been very supportive. Hopefully we will get more funding when the reviews are done,” said Babu. “I believe we are among the top five disciplines in terms of achieving what we set out to do. We participate in all our events, our calendars buzzing with activities and as we elevate our expectations, we need funds to put the right structures in place so that there is sustainability in our systems.”

Key pillars
For UTA Administrator Bagaya, the latest funding will solidify the association’s key pillars; strengthening governance, grassroots programme, welfare of national teams and revival of academies countrywide.  “We have already laid out plans to strengthen governance because it helps to maintain status and possibly grow into another tier of funding after our activities have been reviewed. 

“The grassroots programme is vital for us as it acts as our feeder system that will give us another crop of players, national teams are strong pillars for the association as they are also our brand ambassadors and flag carriers whereas academies in places like Mbarara, Arua, Mbale, Gulu and Soroti will grow our numbers three-fold.” 

It is a known secret that small leaks can sink even the greatest of ships. And for anyone running sports in the country, they know better how hard it has been to keep national team players happy. These unhappy bodies are baring their fangs and believe the association has not provided for them as per their desires and only wishes to use them. “In tennis, when you get better, it becomes more capital intensive. The athlete tends to need more as they seek to elevate themselves to greater heights. Unfortunately federations across the world are not designed to support players at that level when they’re already made,” explains Babu – now spotting  a straight-talking face.

Understanding welfare
“At the time Duncan Mugabe started his professional career, he needed $1,000 (about Shs3.5m then) per week. We don’t have such funds as UTA and it is not just a Ugandan problem. It takes a world to produce a world class player. Quick rewind in 2018 when we gave our players wildcards at the ITF Circuits in Kampala. Was it enough? Never. They need more than pampering. Personal investment and setting priorities is key for them and us. “Look at our system, how many Level 3, 4 and 5 coaches do we have? None. How many international umpires do we have? So many questions. Tennis is an individual sport and personal initiative is important.
“Imagine for all the resources they have; the Americans no longer rule the roost in terms of international player rankings. Italy has only four world class players and Spain seven. For every 200 players a federation invests in, they may only be able to realise two or three top quality players. By the time you make yourself available in tennis, you’re ready to be chosen and make do with what is available. Tennis can be demanding financially.”

But what can we do to make things better for players? “We need to build the infrastructures and attract the big brands like Nike to support our grassroot programmes. We have to create the right atmosphere to get our coaches elevated. Rwanda have sold the rights of their Kigali Arena to BK Arena but look at us as Ugandan sports as a whole. What do we have to sell?” questions Babu.

For Bagaya, who has served as Team Manager for the Davis Cup outfit, an open-door policy will work to improve relationships between administrators and players. “The cost of running a national team anywhere is high. We are looking to build a cordial relationship with the players so that they also understand where we are coming from and appreciate the journey,” said Bagaya.
“We’ve done our best to ensure players are okay as in regards to the resources available. If they felt left out along the way then that was a misunderstanding and break in communication,” Bagaya added when questioned why some senior players like Simon Ayella – son to Oduke and David Oringa were not considered for this year’s Davis Cup mission. 

Champion. Uganda’s Dhaanvi Dechamma recently went to Nairobi and won the Kenya National Junior Open Championship.

“We want players’ welfare to be okay and all our coaches have been asked to follow up on their talents inclusive of their performance in school. We also intend to introduce a psychologist into our set-up to mentor the players. Issues must be addressed as early as possible.”
Whereas Ayella and Oringa have personal scores to settle with UTA, Bagaya says they were not locked out and will always be welcomed back whenever they return. 
For Frank Tayebwa, he opted out so that he could make the most of his training camp in France. 

Forging forward
Babu doesn’t want the tennis fraternity to read from the ‘Book of Lamentations’ but for everyone to be proactive with more focus on grassroots, hosting events and nation.
“In terms of governance, we want to see that we have the right policies, structures and the secretariat is well-manned to see that we meet any audit queries so that we are not questioned how we run the sport at a governance level,” concludes Bagaya.

Tennis in Uganda remains a big work in progress with an upward development trajectory that needs no detractors and saboteurs as it will foil the laid platforms that could be the eternal game changer for the sport seeking  winning volleys and aces.


INTERNATIONAL EVENTS FOR UGANDA TENNIS IN 2022 
l The Junior Davis Cup
l ITF/CAT East Africa Junior Champs 
l Africa Junior Tennis Championships 
l The Africa Group IV Qualifiers
l Billie Jean King Cup  

Women Team To Billie Jean King Cup:  July 4 – 10, 2022

Travelling To North Macedonia
l Winnie Birungi
l Maggie Flavia Namaganda 
l Edna Nabiryo Lovinsa 
Captain: Coach Edward Odockcen

Men’S TEAM To Davis Cup to Kigali on July 4– 9 Africa Group IV Qualifiers
l Joel Mwisukye
l Godfrey Darius Ochen  
l Ronald Nasawali 
l Edward Birungi
Captain: Coach John Oduke

Achievements From Babu’s 8-year Reign
l Readmission to ITF & CAT.
l Emergency of several youth coaches and academies.
l Good relations with NCS, UOC and government.
l Federation have full running office.
l Vibrant and competitive national teams from Under 8 category.
l Full-fledged running calendar.

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