Growing up in the Republic of Kenya, Angella Okutoyi – like so many young tennis players around the world – dreamed of being Serena Williams.
And now, through a miracle of time and space, unnatural endurance and luck, these athletes in Kenya dream of being Angella Okutoyi.
Wimbledon will be remembered as a fortnight of historic firsts:
Elena Rybakina was the first player from Kazakhstan to win a singles Grand Slam tournament. Ons Jabeur is the first Tunisian and Arab woman to reach a Grand Slam final. And now, at the age of 18, Okutoyi is Kenya’s first Wimbledon champion. She and her Dutch partner Rose Marie Nijkamp came back on Saturday to defeat No. 4-seeded Canadian team Kayla Cross and Victoria Mboko 3-6, 6-4 (11-9) in a super tiebreak that ended the Girls doubles final ended .
Her Wikipedia biography was updated almost immediately. An hour later, Okutoyi was asked if she was famous in Kenya.
“I mean,” she said, breaking out in laughter over the phone, “I don’t know. Maybe I am now, but I don’t worry too much, you know? If so, it’s a good thing.”
Wanjiru Mbugua-Karani, the general secretary of Tennis Kenya, who was sitting on the sidelines, was more specific.
“What we say in Africa is, ‘The drums are beating for Angella,'” he told ITF.com. “Let me tell you right away we don’t get live streams in Kenya but everyone will have been watching Angella’s game with live scores. From players of other sports to government officials, Kenya follows Angella.
“Just because Angella has performed at Grand Slams, the impact has been amazing and I can assure you it will be amazing for years to come. Everyone now believes they can do it because Angella showed them how.
Amazing is perhaps an understatement. Okutoyi and her twin sister Rose were raised by their grandmother Mary after their mother died in childbirth. She was only 4 years old when her uncle Allen and a teacher, Joe Karanji, handed her the first bat at Loreto Convent Valley Road, a Nairobi Catholic school originally built to teach children who were too young to enter the monastery.
The first major breakthrough came at the Australian Open earlier this year, when Okutoyi became the first Kenyan tennis player to win a match at a junior grand slam. She reached the third round, matching the performance of her compatriot Christian Vitulli, who advanced to the third round at the 2005 US Open juniors.
While her success was widely celebrated – she received accolades from another Kenyan pioneer, Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o – she was only registered at a junior tournament at the Public Service Club, an eight-court facility in Nairobi.
“I gave the kids the trophy and they said, ‘We want to be like you one day. We want to play in the Grand Slams,'” Okutoyi said. “That also motivated me to do good and better things. If you have faith, you can make the dream come true.
“The media have really helped me a lot. Since that time in Australia, many people have recognized me – which has always been my dream for me and my country. I’ve inspired a lot of players in Kenya now. A lot of people want to play.”
Mbugua-Karani said: “Participation in Kenya has boomed since Angella did what she did in Australia. A week after the Australian Open it got crazy and there were so many kids in the courts.”
However, Okutoyi was unsure about continuing her journey on the elite junior Grand Slam circuit. Roland Garros and Wimbledon were more than 6,000 miles away and would require serious funding. Join the International Tennis Federation’s Grand Slam Player Development Program for talented players from developing countries.
With the support of Tennis Kenya, the ITF offered coaching and signed Okutoyi’s trip to Paris for the French Open, which ended in a first-round singles loss. She was the first Kenyan girl to win Wimbledon since Susan Wakhungu in 1978.
“Dreaming something is one thing,” Okutoyi said, “but really being there is another. Stepping onto the Wimbledon court was the best feeling ever. I’ve always played on the grass in the playground, played games, but playing tennis on grass is different. My first time was such a nice experience. Surreal is real.”
The reality: Okutoyi lost her first singles match to Canada’s Mia Kupres before a chance, first-time partnership blossomed with Nijkamp.
“Fun story,” Okutoyi explained. “She contacted me on Instagram. She said, “Do you want to play doubles?” I thought yes, because back then I was looking for a forever and ever partner. And all were already paired. So we played.”
A funnier story? Her partner from the Netherlands, Rose Marie, shares this name with Okutoyi’s twin sister, Rosie.
“I got confused at times when I said, ‘Let’s go Rosie,'” Okutoyi said. “We have this connection. We’re not mad at each other. We are like a team. We have faith; we take our chances.”
In 18th place, Okutoyi and Nijkamp survived a match point and when the final ball hit the tape four feet from her face, Okutoyi leaned forward in disbelief.
“If you dream big, then this [is] what happens,” she wrote in an Instagram post.
It was a first for the country of nearly 50 million people and covering 225,000 square miles.
Ahead of the Australian Open, she desperately wished she could win a junior Grand Slam match. Now Okutoyi says she’s recalibrating those dreams.
“You want your dreams to be honest,” she said. “And that means a lot because now that’s going to give me an extra boost, that extra belief, you know?
“It was my dream to play in the Grand Slams and do good things for me and my country. to be champion. I did it, so now I think I might think about fighting for a championship in the big Grand Slams as well. Now I feel like I have the potential to play doubles. That means a lot to me.”
There is one last dream, one more fervent wish.
“Do you see them [major junior] Draw from 64 – and you are the only person from Kenya,” said Okutoyi. “There are about five people from some of the other countries. I would like to change that for the future. I want to give the players in my country the belief that it’s possible. I want to see my country’s future bright and see many Kenyans in the 64 draw.
“I know it will change.”