If you search the word #GOAT on twitter, you are likely to be presented with two top results: Roger Federer and Serena Williams. This shouldn’t be a surprise, considering just this weekend they won their 18th (Federer) and 23rd (Serena) grand slam singles respectively and their combined net worth of $500 million. But while we are in awe of these athletic achievements, one cannot help but wonder about the future of tennis, and whether in fact, these world records will last for our life time, or if not, who the next #GOAT will be. I recently spoke to rising tennis player Lungi Ntuli who, at 16 years old, is convinced that the future of tennis is African.
MR: Who is Lungi Ntuli on and off the court?
LN: Off the court, most people who know me would call me an extrovert. I actually love to entertain and to make people laugh. I’m quite good at playing violin and I used to sing in the choir too, so I enjoy the arts and culture as well. On the court, however, I’m very quiet and focused, but I think the fun in my personality comes out in the flare I bring to the game.
MR: I’ve always admired people who know exactly what they want to do with the rest of their lives from a young age. How did you decide to become a professional athlete? What influenced your decision?
LN: When I was in primary school, I felt the urge to do something with my life that I could identify with. I was a pretty well rounded student (I had done well at school academically, musically and with sports) but I felt I wanted to do something with a purpose. My mother is in the sporting business, so sport was all around us. It was only when I went on a tennis tour to the US at the age of 12 that I realized that this is what I wanted to do. We visited the top tennis academy in the world and I was so inspired by the dedication of the young professional tennis players and the results of putting in hard work. It also made me realize what I was lacking, what aspects of my game I needed to work on, and that in order to play at that level I would require a lifestyle change. My sole dream is to become the Number 1 tennis player in the world, and to become the first black African player to win a grand slam. Every single day I write that on my wall. Knowing what I really wanted to do made me realise that music not being my purpose, even though I enjoyed it, and it helped me decide to be home schooled so that I could pursue my tennis career.
MR: What other personal sacrifices have you made for the love of tennis?
LN: The list is endless! We had to relocate from Stellenbosch to Cape Town, so that I could be closer to coach. It was a family sacrifice to leave our home and establish ourselves in a new city. My schedule unfortunately doesn’t allow me to see my friends that often, if I’m not at a tournament, I’m training, if I’m not training, I’m studying and when I’m not studying I’m sleeping. Tennis is also not a social sport, you’re pretty much solo when you go on tour, unlike other sports where you would tour with a team, so it can be quite lonely. Many people only really begin to understand why I make these sacrifices, when they see me at work and they see the results I’m getting.
I’ve also realized how professional tennis required a lot of financial investment and sacrifice, and this is particularly tough for aspiring black tennis players. So, my mother and I are involved in fund raising for the sports. Every year in spring, we host fund raising exhibition games, and 10% of the funds raised at these events goes towards the development of tennis in townships. The exhibition games are growing from strength to strength, we gather some of the best black players from across the country and we’ve been fortunate enough to get great sponsors on board.
MR: How do you find black tennis players around the country?
LN: The circle of black tennis players is so small. There are probably about 5-7 good black tennis players on the circuit, out of 3000 tennis players in total on the circuit. So as you can imagine, we do a lot of work to unearth this talent. When we first started the exhibition games, we were initially raising funds for me to continue playing professionally, and we only really had family coming to support. But then my mother and I thought we needed to use the games as a platform to elevate black tennis talent, especially since there are so few development programmes out there and so a lot of talent is wasted. When I started to share more about our initiative on social media, more requests and support came through from around the world, even from the likes of Wayde van Niekerk. Our dream is to bring kids from other countries, like Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, and more from across the continent to the exhibitions. I want to bring forth the message that African talent has arrived. Not just in tennis but across all sports.
MR: What is your unique strength on the court?
LN: Besides my physique, which I’ve worked very hard for, my mental game is also very strong. Having a focused mindset in tennis is so important, because your temperament and attitude on court can determine the result of your game. Otherwise, it’s very easy to lose a match. I have a team of sports scientists and psychology trainers that coach me towards my goal of getting to the top.
MR: Who are your tennis heroes?
LN: I think Venus and Serena Williams are every tennis player’s heroines right now. But I’m a firm believer that Arthur Ashe and Althea Gibson really paved the way for black tennis players, not many people outside of the tennis world even know that the biggest tennis stadium in the world was named after Arthur Ash. So, I think it’s important that we remember them as the first trail blazers.
MR: What has been some of the best advice you’ve received in your tennis career?
LN: I had the opportunity to meet Wayde van Niekerk, and even though he is an Olympic gold medalist, he is one of the most humble athletes I have met. He told me that his career and his life was never about the medals, he was motivated to fulfill a higher purpose, which is to serve people and to serve God. He also gave me the perspective that nothing lasts forever – even though he is an incredible runner, he knows that at this very moment there is a teenager somewhere in the world who is working hard to try break his world record. It’s an interesting way to think about living for every moment as it happens.
I also think some of the best advice I’ve received has been to know where you stand and where you came from. Being African and trying to find our place in the world when we are often sidelined, comes with unique pressures. Tennis is a real example of this, it’s still seen as an exclusive and white sport because it’s very hard for us to enter the game and become successful. Fortunately, my family has been very supportive on my journey, and they’ve seen me transform from a regular kid to a professional athlete. When I get to Wimbledon one day, I will book out a whole box of seats at centre court just for my family.
MR: What advice would you give to other athletes?
LN: There is no dream that is too big. If you have the talent and skill, there is absolutely nothing stopping you in this world other than yourself.
MR: When is your next exhibition?
LN: It will be in October 2017, I will certainly share more details about it with you closer to the event.
As a young athlete, Lungi has many accomplishments under her belt, including represented South Africa at an international level and being ranked top 30 in the country. But, one only has to view Lungi’s website and social media pages to see that she is fiercely determined, disciplined and passionate about tennis. Each drill, each game, each passing shot is a show of both her athletic prowess and an inner force that has bigger dreams for her continent.
Article by: Magcino Radebe | Mbewu Movement Founding Member
Magcino Radebe holds a Master of Philosophy in Politics, Philosophy and Economics (University of Cape Town). She is an Executive Assistant in Financial Services