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Angella Okutoyi of Kenya, who went from an orphanage to become a tennis star

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The 19-year-old who won the junior Grand Slam for her country explained how she stays inspired to accomplish her goals and how she is putting in a lot of effort to play in the Olympics like her idol Serena Williams.

Angella Okutoyi
Angella Okutoyi

It was difficult to imagine, just over a decade ago, that the little girl who was living on the streets and playing tennis courts would grow up to be one of the best female players in sub-Saharan Africa.

As of right now, Angella Okutoyi is the top tennis player in Kenya, and her perseverance in overcoming hardship has contributed to her success.

When the teen and Dutch player Rose Marie Nijkamp won the Wimbledon girls’ doubles championship in 2022, they created history.

By winning that junior Grand Slam, Okutoyi made history as the first Black African to do so.

Okutoyi and her twin sister Roselida Asumwa had harsh and painful childhoods, including a period spent in an orphanage. Tennis provided them with an escape.

African youth are now being encouraged to follow their dreams by them.

“I can demonstrate to young children that they can achieve their goals by sharing my journey with them,” Okutoyi said.

Since I didn’t come from a wealthy background, most people are aware that tennis is a wealthy sport. Therefore, it’s a pretty good story about me breaking through.

“I remember as a child there were periods when we went without food and our only source of nourishment was a cup of water, but we managed to get by.” I am fearless and strong because of this.”

In the July ITF W15 event in Monastir, Tunisia, Okutoyi won her nation’s first-ever ITF World Tennis Tour singles tournament.

She continued her winning streak in Nairobi in December, where she defeated Lena Papadakis, the former world number 250 from Germany, to win her first ITF W25 title.

Now, the 19-year-old wants to follow in the footsteps of her tennis idol, Serena Williams, and hopefully make it to the Olympics.

When their mother tragically passed away during childbirth, Okutoyi and her twin sister Asumwa were placed in an orphanage.

However, after only a short while, their mother’s grandmother Mary Ndonda made the difficult decision to raise the months-old twins—a difficult task for the elderly woman who was employed as a cleaner at a convent in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital.

The two girls, along with Ndonda and three other kids, shared a one-room home. Moreover, Okutoyi’s early recollections were troubling and dark.

“My life growing up wasn’t easy,” as I recall. My grandmother, a widower, was the only member of our family who had money, and she was responsible for five children.

She had to use oxygen once when her daughter was unwell. My aunt Cynthia, my uncle Allan, and I would all attend school. Rosie’s mother had to work to earn money, so even though we were still very young, we had to look after her ill daughter.

We only had our grandmother who provided everything for us,” Osumwa continued. Getting a meal at night was not always easy for us. Maybe only one of us ate breakfast or dinner.

“It was difficult, yet it was a worthwhile experience,” Okutoyi adds with a smile. “I think the difficult times have brought us this far.”

Even with such a challenging beginning to life, the twins quickly found solace in tennis.

The four-year-olds would spend most of their time playing tennis, a sport that some family members were quite skilled at, at the convent where they were living.

Since tennis was the only sport Okutoyi could watch, that’s how she decided on it. “I was constantly surrounded by that particular sport. Our family was playing tennis even before that. Before she passed away, my mother, my aunt, and my uncle were all avid tennis players. It’s just in us, I think.

“It is in my memory that I played tennis on a tennis court while carrying a large racket and dressed casually.”

“It was tough for us at the beginning because we didn’t have the right equipment for us to really play well, but we managed to work with what we had,” said her twin Osumwa, who aspires to be like her idol Venus Williams.

Apart from sporadic matches held at the sports field of their elementary school by a slum-based organization, Okutoyi had little opportunity to play tennis.

Her first major break, however, came when she was chosen to participate in the ITF-sponsored Kenya Junior Tennis Initiative for kids ages 14 and under.

She moved to Burundi in 2014 and was stationed at the ITF East Africa Regional Training Center until she was compelled to return to Kenya due to civil unrest.

“It has been a huge help to me since I was nine or ten years old,” Okutoyi said of the ITF sponsorship. Since tennis isn’t regarded as a popular sport in Kenya, getting to where I am now was not an easy feat. It required a great deal of hardships, hard work, devotion, and sacrifice.

Okutoyi showed that she deserved the opportunity. In 2018, she became the youngest winner of the Kenya Open singles title after winning the Under-14 African Championships.

“I really treasure the African championships,” she acknowledged, “where I won the Under-18 and Under-14 [titles].” My decision was influenced by the fact that the Under-14 program offered me numerous chances to compete in tournaments throughout Europe. I didn’t have that opportunity when I was younger.

“It was the Under-18 championships that provided me with the opportunity to participate in all four Grand Slams.”

Angella Okutoyi talks about creating history at Wimbledon and the Australian Open.

At the 2022 Australian Open, the tennis prodigy made history by defeating Federica Urgesi of Italy in three sets, making history as the first Kenyan girl to win a Junior Grand Slam match.

Then, as a part of the Grand Slam Player Development Program/ITF Touring Team, she advanced with Nijkamp to the Wimbledon girls’ doubles championship match, where they triumphed 11-9 in a champions’ tiebreak over the Canadian squad of Kayla Cross and Victoria Mboko.

That victory prompted joy in Kenya, a nation best known for its middle- and long-distance runners, and elevated women’s tennis to a new level there.

“I just went there to play my best and give it everything I had; I had no idea that I was the first [Kenyan girl] to reach round three at the Australian Open.” Wimbledon was a huge event at the time, as Kenya’s rising tennis star noted.

“It’s a good story to show the world and kids from Kenya and Africa that you can break through,” she continued.

“The majority of children who are beginning to play tennis these days don’t come from wealthy backgrounds, and I get to show them that it’s something they can do too. All they have to do is have faith in their own abilities and aspirations and maintain an optimistic outlook that all will work out.

Even now, tennis is considered an elite sport in the country of East Africa. Nairobi does not have any public tennis courts or clubs, and it is still difficult to get equipment.

However, the tennis scene in Kenya has greatly benefited from the twins’ achievements.

The trailblazer, Okutoyi, keeps her ground while ascending.

She even preserves a picture of herself when she was six years old as a memento of her life’s journey.

“I enjoy looking back at my earlier years to be reminded of my origins. She told Olympics.com, “And to just give me that extra push and extra courage that, ‘That’s where you were and this is where you are now.'”

“I learned a lot from the hard life. It helped me learn self-control, humility, and how to live without an ego. It made me more appreciative.

It also taught me to share my little possessions and show compassion for others. Due to the lack of someone with whom to share things at that time.

Though she still looks to many others, such as childhood hero Serena Williams and track stars Faith Kipyegon and Ferdinand Omanyala, looking inward has helped her succeed both personally and professionally.

“Serena had such a strong fighting spirit when she was still playing.” I think my aggressive baseliner style is similar to hers. She is also a fighter, just as I am on the court, and I think she is as well. I’m willing to give it my all. I’m really inspired by her.

“And it’s really great that Faith Kipyegon broke two records as a mother because it gives me courage and motivation.” I also appreciate Ferdinand Omanyala’s dedication and humility. He only engages in combat.

In the future, the tennis prodigy aspires to replicate her achievements from the ITF Tour at the Olympic level.

“Probably the first time I watched the Olympics was when I was playing in my first All-African Games, a qualifying tournament for the Olympics, with the Under-14 team.” I learned then that there was an Olympics and that it was a major competition, similar to a Grand Slam.

“Ever since then, my dream has been to represent Kenya by playing in the Olympics.”

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