They met four years ago as 13-year-olds at an International Tennis Federation J5 event in Nairobi, Kenya.
Angella Okutoyi was raised in a Catholic convent school in Kenya, while Meshkatolzahra Safi was a Muslim from Iran. Safi won their first singles encounter, then a year later Okutoyi won the second. A year ago, Okutoyi took the J4 singles title as a wildcard and played doubles with Safi. They lost in the final but discovered a common ground that brought them together.
The photo (above) that captures the moment shows the two, side by side, wearing baseball caps, masks stretched across their faces, earnestly holding their doubles trophies. Okutoyi and Safi, around four inches shorter, stand in front of a white banner festooned with logos.
Ordinarily, these photographs are cropped tightly to enhance the exposure of those sponsors, but here you can see behind the curtain – the evidence of the obstacles they had to overcome – paint peeling on metal, battered burnt-sienna clay courts, a shock of parched grass.
Almost exactly one year later, they would make their own spectacular history half a world away in Melbourne, Australia.
“After [the J4 event],” Safi said in an interview from Iran, “we were in touch.”
Okutoyi, speaking from Melbourne, added, “I’m happy to be a good friend of hers.”
A week before the Australian Open began, they weren’t certain they would both be there. Safi was playing a tournament in India and, through the efforts of her academy, Optigenpro in Tehran, and the Iranian government, her visa was approved. She flew home, then from Tehran to Doha to Melbourne – that last leg 14 hours in the air. She and her coach were in transport from the airport when Okutoyi posted an Instagram photo from the downtown Crown Hotel.
Safi messaged her: “I’ll be there in two minutes.”
In Australia, Okutoyi, ranked No.71 in the world among junior girls, was already in the main draw, but Safi, No.78, was just outside.
“And then, at the last minute, I got in,” Safi said. “You can’t believe how happy we were.”
They managed to practice together, not that they could really concentrate on tennis. They were eating in the same restaurants as the sport’s biggest stars, working alongside them in the gym, staying in the same hotel – giddy, taking pictures of everything. This wasn’t the J4/Nairobi anymore.
“Everyone is famous but acting completely normal,” Safi said. “You are seeing them not from YouTube and the phone, but in real life.”
No Iranian girl before her had been ranked in the ITF’s Top 100 or played a junior Grand Slam match. No Kenyan girl had ever won one.
“We have had similar journeys,” Okutoyi said. “Our way is more different than others. I’m really proud of her, and I know she’s proud of me. I know how many hard times I had and, well, she had the same.”
Learning to love the game
Karaj, Iran’s fourth-largest city, lies just to the west of Tehran, the capital city, and has a population of nearly two million. Two of them, Maryam and Mansour Safi, were both fans of tennis and it was often on their television.
Safi can’t remember what match it was, but most likely it was in early 2013 when Rafael Nadal won titles in Sao Paulo, Acapulco and Indian Wells. Watching Rafa was a revelation.
“How does it feel,” Safi asked her parents, “when you play tennis?”
A few days later, she found out. Her mother took her to the Jahanshahr Tennis Complex, featuring eight asphalt courts then painted blue. They bought a child’s racquet at the small shop adjacent to the courts. Meshkat loved everything about it: hitting the ball, running on the court, the spins, the angles, the pace. In the beginning, she would hit balls once a week. Later, as Safi became more passionate about the sport, two or three times a week.
She won a few local tournaments, entered the ITF’s junior tennis initiative and a trajectory was in place.
There were other hurdles, too. She lived in Iran, a culture where tennis is not a popular sport – and women aren’t always on equal footing with their male counterparts. In 2017, a World Economic Forum report ranked Iran 140 out of 144 countries in the area of gender parity.
She dons a hijab, the mandatory public veil that came back into practice after the 1979 revolution. As recently as 2017, noncompliance was punishable by arrest, and even now it can lead to mandatory Islam education classes.
Okutoyi was only 4 when they put the first racquet in her hand.
Loreto Convent Valley Road is a school founded in 1942, originally designed to educate children too young to enter the convent. It sits on a quiet road in Nairobi, next to the Israeli Embassy. The three tennis courts out back are bordered by two concrete hitting walls. The net posts are painted a becoming teal.
This is where Okutoyi hit her first tennis ball. She had two mentors, her uncle Allen and a teacher named Joe Karanji.
“They worked with me from the beginning,” Okutoyi said. “At the time, I didn’t know what tennis could be. Then I started winning a couple of tournaments and really fell in love with the game.”
In 2014, at the age of 9, she was invited to the ITF’s East Africa Regional Training Center in Burundi. She played on Tennis Kenya’s national teams and eventually graduated to larger junior tournaments.
Later, she returned to Nairobi and developed at the ITF East Africa High Performance Center.
Last year, Okutoyi won three ITF junior titles, including a watershed victory at the ITF African Junior Championship in Sousse. She always seemed to know exactly where she wanted to go.
In 2019, well before her recent success suggested a breakthrough, she drew the initials “AO” in her tennis book, a diary of her travels, thoughts and hopes.
“Let me read the entry to you,” Okutoyi said into her phone. “I wrote, “Dream Tournament. I will win a match in a Grand Slam.”
On the first day of the Australian Open’s second week, a Sunday, it happened.
Okutoyi defeated Italian qualifier Federica Urgesi 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-3 on Court 14 to become the first Kenyan girl to win a junior Grand Slam match.
Playing in 1573 Arena in 90-degree heat, Safi matched her with a 6-4, 6-3 victory over Anja Nayar, an Australian qualifier. She was the first Iranian of either gender to win a match at a junior major.
“Sometimes the heat is difficult for me, I cannot lie,” said Safi, who also wore tights and a long-sleeve shirt. “It is my culture. I cover myself in the streets and at school. Tennis, it is the same. With the hijab, I can be myself.”
Two discerning reporters, Reem Abulleil, an Egyptian freelancer, and Ross McLean of the ITF, interviewed Safi, who before the first question thanked them for attending.
“I opened a new window to Iranian tennis,” she told them. “I’m really happy to do that. Today is a special day for Iranian tennis. I just really want to say don’t give up on your dreams because when I started my journey, everybody in Iran was saying, ‘this is impossible, playing Grand Slams is impossible.
“So I didn’t say my dream to anyone anymore and I just kept pushing. I think now I’m one of the good reasons that everybody can see tennis in my country,” she said.
If you were looking for a sign, here it is pic.twitter.com/wW3LRuegBg— Angella Okutoyi (@Okutoyiangella2) February 1, 2022
After a second-round victory over Australia’s Zara Larke, Okutoyi told the ITF, “To make history here in Melbourne has been very special. In Kenya, most people who play tennis are not well off. Their families, like mine, don’t have much and I just want to encourage them and say that situation doesn’t mean they cannot reach here, and it doesn’t define them.”
Okutoyi lost in the third round, while Safi fell in the second.
“I had a dream to win a match at a Grand Slam,” Okutoyi said. “I had hope and I believed that one day I would be here.”
More work to do
Sometimes, when you wake up from a vivid dream, groggy and disoriented, there’s a vague uncertainty – did that really happen? In the aftermath, those thoughts still lingered with the 17-year-olds.
“Well,” Okutoyi said the day after he run ended, “obviously it’s really hard to process it, because I didn’t expect it to happen. Mostly, I am very happy and grateful as well.”
Safi got to meet Nadal and get a picture together.
“For me it was a pleasure to know more about her, I think it’s amazing, her story,” Nadal told Abulleil. “Super special to see players from different parts of the world, especially parts of the world that historically we never had players on the tour.
“In this particular case, if that helped her to try to play tennis and now she is where she is, it’s a big honor for me and I’m super happy for that.”
Safi said she got into tennis after watching a @RafaelNadal match on TV with her mom. Has idolized him ever since (along with Cristiano Ronaldo). This photo makes me so happy; so glad she met him. https://t.co/m2v5hXR6ap pic.twitter.com/Zz9ELQlJmZ— Reem Abulleil (@ReemAbulleil) January 24, 2022
Five days after her historic win and two days after arriving home in Iran, Safi watched Nadal advance to the Australian Open final with a muscular win over Matteo Berrettini.
“When I saw Rafa on the television,” Safi said, “I opened my phone and saw me and Rafa together. I was saying, `I was just there.’ Can you believe that?
“I would like to speak to him again.”
In a perfect world, it happens in four months at Roland Garros. But as Safi and Okutoyi already know, their world is far from perfect. Both say the immediate goal is to play in the season’s three remaining Grand Slams, but there are more obstacles to overcome. Securing visas to enter other countries is difficult. And because no sponsors are allowed in Iran’s current system, money will be an issue for Safi.
They both hope the exposure in Melbourne will draw support. It never hurts when Billie Jean King tweets about you. “Love watching our sport grow across the globe,” she posted, referring to their victories.
Colette Lewis, owner and editor of ZooTennis, a leading junior tennis blog, says this diversification was inevitable.
“It’s nice to see people who grew up in these unusual places and learned to play there and had their dream. It’s an acceleration and continuation of the trend we’ve been seeing.
“A few years back, we had quite a few really, really good players from the Republic of Burundi. But Iran and Kenya are more surprising. These days I see country codes I don’t recognize in the 12s.When they describe their origin stories, it’s astonishing they have gotten to the level of actually competing.”
Okutoyi, who turned 18 this past Saturday, believes her success will have an impact in Kenya.
“In Kenya, Serena Williams is the only one to look up to,” she said. “And now they are looking up to me, too. I believe it’s quite great. It motivates me to do more, to get better and better.”
The experience in Melbourne taught them both that there’s more work to do.
“I see now how they play on tour,” Safi said. “I just want to put myself to practice harder. You have all these hard times, tough tournaments. At the end, one day, I want to win the big Grand Slam.”