Once we completed building our first tennis courts, about 22 years ago, I was keen to roll out a program that would ensure that the children who came through us, would have a brilliant future. I began to search around the city for coaches who were considered the best, and invited them to come and spend time with us. I quickly learned that, to them, nothing was for free, and I had to raise funds to have them come and run short sessions for the kids, many of whom still played barefoot.
I learned much from watching them coach, but often left quite puzzled by, not the style, but the reason behind some of the drills that were used, especially before competition. A couple of the visiting coaches were actually national coaches for the association, taking the Kenya team through their paces, and accompanying them to tournaments. Perhaps because of the hunger with which our players faced competition, we soon had a few boys and girls playing for the national team, then I would attend some of the training run by the association coach, whom I often asked, “what will this drill do?” and “why are we not winning more?”, when it came to the Kenya team. Players were required to run long-distance endlessly, much like the typical training for our famous Kenyan cross-country runners, every day. I watched my players get thinner and weaker on the court, and began to get concerned. Then one day, I found that they had, as a result of constant requests for a fitness programme, a karate coach to work with the 11-13 year olds, and as they kicked and shouted on the side of the pitch, I protested roundly to the head coach, who was drinking tea as he chatted with the club manager.
As you can imagine, I finally got kicked out of the training and asked not to interfere with the coaches.
After a string of losses, I decided to pull the players who were willing to continue with me from the national team: we needed to fix the problem. Half the team, composed largely of the more affluent parents did not understand what I was talking about, and chose to stay on with the association team (a separation that grew extremely bitter when they later began to lose regularly to our team). I was convinced that it was time to build my own program, understanding the reality, that Kenyan kids may be great at cross-country and middle distance running, but tennis needed more than that. Just watching the game of tennis, its obvious that there are frequent starts and stops and jumps and movements that were in different directions, with the majority being side to side. How then, could training running in one direction be the only way to build better play?
I remember our team facing a lot of negativity from an ITF regional representative at a tournament at the time, when we were told openly “I hear you guys don’t a lot of running. How do you expect to win anything when your kids don’t run? You will never make it, Sadili is finished”.
It was a tough time for our team, but I encouraged the players to ignore the teasing and concentrate of getting better. Within 6 weeks, one of our players reached semi-finals, while three qualified to the main draw and one reached the third round. We were headed in the right direction, it was time to go full blast. Six years later, as I watched my team sweep the board in an East Africa ITF/CAT regional tournament, a pressman asked me what the secret was.
“Doing the obvious”, was all I could say.