Nobody knew how to say Zarah Razafimahatratra’s surname when she was crowned Africa’s junior tennis champion in Lagos, Nigeria, in 2010. All they did know was that the young girl from Madagascar, who was a little over 15 years old and brimming with confidence, could become a star.
She had a solid backhand and controlled the baseline with ease, skills she learnt in South Africa, where she was a student at a Pretoria academy backed by the International Tennis Federation (ITF). Razafimahatratra describes her journey to victory as a “great adventure”, but admits that the excitement quickly gave way to real concerns.
Razafimahatratra’s form was improving to the point where she wanted to start playing in the junior events at grand slams. “I should be playing the Australian Open but for financial reasons, I cannot,” she said at the time of her junior title win.
“To progress, I have to spend a lot of money, and this is what I currently lack. I’ve already improved by playing regularly in Africa. I made an effort to be at the top of Africa and now that I have, I need to play a lot more tournaments.”
Without sponsorship, global travel was difficult and Razafimahatratra found, like many other players from Africa, that the year’s first major event could not feature on her calendar.
Later that year, Razafimahatratra secured a small amount of corporate backing when motor vehicle company Materauto Ford in Madagascar decided to back her. It was too late to head to Australia, but she used the money to concentrate on making a name for herself.
In 2012, Razafimahatratra played two Grade 1 tournaments in South America and a full season of junior clay court tennis in Europe. She found the competition much tougher, losing in the first round in both Costa Rica and in Venezuela, but managing to reach the quarterfinals on clay. That was when she decided to turn professional and start playing with the big girls on the ITF circuit.
Razafimahatratra’s first outing was back in Nigeria. If she won the tournament, she would take home $25,000 in prize money, with the knowledge that she would have to be the best player on the court in order to pay for her career. Razafimahatratra knew she had to up her game.
She struggled initially, losing in the early stages of competitions, but by the end of the year, the Malagasy player was crowned champion in both the singles and doubles events in Potchefstroom, South Africa. She started 2013 with two victories in doubles tournaments in Egypt.
At 19, Razafimahatratra is her country’s top tennis player. She has handed Madagascar its first Fed Cup – a team event that is the female version of the Davis Cup – victory in a decade. However, money is still the biggest obstacle to her continued success.
Razafimahatratra is not alone. Across the continent, tennis players rely on slim pickings, even though the ITF runs three centers of development. The academies, in Morocco, South Africa and the most recent addition in Burundi, create a home for the sport in the north, south and east of the continent.
West Africa used to have a base in Dakar, Senegal, but the facility has lost its ITF status. It continues to ope-rate as a national centre of development, and with similar operations in Mali and Togo, that part of the continent is not entirely out in the cold when it comes to tennis.
Talented African players are awarded scholarships from the ITF, which allow them to spend up to a month at any of these centers. If they are deemed superstars in the making, they may be invited to spend longer periods at the academies, honing their skills. But the ITF has repeatedly exp-lained that the financial assistance it provides is insufficient.
“We would love to see the governments being more committed to developing the game,” Frank Courard of the ITF’s development projects told CNN when Burundi’s facility was opened. “If you look at our budget of $4.3 million each year, it’s what FIFA gives to maybe one or two nations. There’s a huge discrepancy.”
Football and athletics remain the most popular sports in Africa and one of the reasons is because the continent consistently produces heroes in those sports. Tennis role models are few and far between. Courard says the last one was probably Yannick Noah, the Frenchman of Cameroonian descent who began playing tennis in Africa and won the French Open in 1983.
“When he won, in Cameroon, kids identified (with him) and wanted to play tennis because they saw Yannick winning,” Courard recalls.
Currently, Burundi’s Hassan Ndayishimiye leads the stakes in the men’s game. He became the first Burundian to play at Wimbledon. He was ranked 112th on the junior table when he was given a wild card entry to the qualifying draw. Not only did he make it into the main section of the tournament, but he went on to play in the second round, an achievement he described as one of the best moments in his life.
“It was amazing. It was when I realized that this kid from Burundi can change the tennis world, he can make it. He can go where no Burundian has ever been – and no one has even heard of Burundi,” he said at the time.
Similarly, very few in the tennis world associate Madagascar with the game, and even fewer have heard of Razafimahatratra. Malagasy authorities would do well to heed the young woman’s call for support. The last tennis player from Madagascar to progress internationally was Dally Randriantefy, who reached a career high of 44 on the Women’s Tennis Association rankings. She “fought alone without the help of the state and finally decided to stop” in 2006.
Razafimahatratra has no intention of quitting but her country has already come close to losing her.
“I was asked by Egyptian coaches and South Africans to change nationalities but I have said no. I am proud of my country. I’ve given a lot to Madagascar and I still hope for some recognition,” she explains.
She may get that recognition if she makes it to an event such as the Australian Open. She will not be the first Malagasy to play there; Randriantefy participated in the tournament and retired in 2006 after losing in the first round. But Razafimahatratra could become the first African woman in a long time to do something special in a grand slam.
South Africa’s Chanelle Scheepers was the only representative from Africa at the 2011 Australian Open, and since then, Zimbabwe’s Cara Black has played in doubles events at the Rod Laver Arena. No other African woman has made it, but the next one could well be Razafimahatratra. The commentators had better start learning how to pronounce her name.