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 perseverance and good fortune, those athletes in Kenya dream of being Angella Okutoyi.
Wimbledon will be remembered as a fortnight of historic firsts:
Elena Rybakina was the first player representing Kazakhstan to win a Grand Slam singles 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 Dutch partner Rose Marie Nijkamp came back Saturday to defeat the No.4-seeded Canadian team of Kayla Cross and Victoria Mboko 3-6, 6-4 (11-9) in a super-tiebreak that concluded the girls’ doubles final.
Her Wikipedia biography was updated almost instantly. One hour later, Okutoyi was asked if she was famous in Kenya.
“I mean,” she said, bursting into laughter on the phone, “I wouldn’t know. Maybe now I am, but I don’t put too much in my head, you know? If I am, it’s a good thing.”
Wanjiru Mbugua-Karani, the Secretary-General of Tennis Kenya, who was sitting courtside, was more specific.
“What we say in Africa is, ‘the drums are beating for Angella,’” she told ITF.com. “I can tell you right this minute that we do not get live streams in Kenya, but everyone will have been following Angella’s match on live scores. From players of other sports to government officials, Kenya is following Angella.
“Just by Angella featuring at Grand Slams, the impact has been amazing, and I can assure you that in the next few years it is going to be amazing. Everybody now believes they can do it because Angella has shown the way.
Amazing might be 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, put the first racquet in her hand at the Loreto Convent Valley Road, a Catholic school in Nairobi originally built to educate children too young to enter the convent.
The first major breakthrough came earlier this year at the Australian Open, when Okutoyi became the first female Kenyan tennis player to win a match at a junior Grand Slam. She reached the third round, equaling the feat of countryman Christian Vitulli, who advanced to the third round of the 2005 US Open boys’ juniors.
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While her success was widely celebrated -- she received accolades from another Kenyan pioneer, Oscar-winning actress Lupita Nyong’o -- it didn’t quite register until a junior tournament at the Public Service Club, an eight-court facility in Nairobi.
“I gave the trophy to the kids, and they were like, `We want to be like you one day. We want to play the Grand Slams,’” Okutoyi said. “That also motivated me to do good and gooder. If you have the belief you can have the dream come true.
“The media really helped me a lot. Since that time in Australia, many people started to recognize me -- which was always my dream for me and my country. I have inspired a lot of players in Kenya now. A lot of people want to play.”
Said Mbugua-Karani, “Participation in Kenya has boomed since Angella did what she did in Australia. A week after the Australian Open, it went crazy and there were so many kids on courts.’’
Still, Okutoyi wasn’t sure if she would continue her journey on the elite junior Grand Slam circuit. Roland Garros and Wimbledon were more than 6,000 miles away and would require some serious funding. Enter the International Tennis Federation’s Grand Slam Player Development Programme, which targets talented players from developing nations.
With assistance from Tennis Kenya, the ITF provided coaching and underwrote Okutoyi’s trip to Paris for the French Open, which ended with a first-round singles loss. At Wimbledon, she was the first Kenyan girl to appear since Susan Wakhungu in 1978.
“Dreaming something is one thing,” Okutoyi said, “but being there is really another. When I stepped on the Wimbledon court, it was the best feeling ever. I was always playing on the grass in the playground, playing games but playing tennis on grass is something else. My first time was such a beautiful experience. Surreal is real.”
The reality: Okutoyi lost her first singles match to Canada’s Mia Kupres before a fortuitous, first-time partnership with Nijkamp blossomed.
“Funny story,” Okutoyi explained. “She reached out to me on Instagram. She was like, `You want to play doubles?’ I was like, yes, because at that time I was looking forever and ever for a partner. And everyone was already paired up. So we played.”
A funnier story? Her partner from the Netherlands, Rose Marie, shares that name with Okutoyi’s twin sister, Rosie.
“I would get confused sometimes in points say, `Let’s go, Rosie,’” Okutoyi said. “We have that connection. We don’t get mad at each other. We are like a team. We have the belief; we take our chances.”
On Court 18, Okutoyi and Nijkamp survived a match point and when the last ball hit the tape four feet from her face, Okutoyi bent over in disbelief.
“If you dream big, this [is] what happens,” she wrote in an Instagram post.
It was a first for the country of nearly 50 million, encompassing 225,000 square miles.
Before the Australian Open, she wished desperately that she might win a junior Grand Slam match. Now, Okutoyi says she is recalibrating those dreams.
“You want your dreams to be honest,” she said. “And this means a lot because now this will give me an extra boost, that extra belief, you know?
“It was my dream to play at the Grand Slams, do good for myself and my country. To be champion. I did it, so now I think I might consider also fighting for a championship in the big Grand Slams. Now I feel I have the potential to play doubles. This means a lot to me.”
There is one more final dream, one more fervent wish.
“You see the [major junior] draw of 64 -- and you’re the only person from Kenya in it,” Okutoyi said. “There are like five people from some of the other countries. I want to change that for the future. I want to give the players in my country the belief that it is possible. I want to see the future of my country bright and see many Kenyans in the draw of the 64.
“I know it will change.”