From Mufakose to tennis grand slams: Zim coach’s untold story

Unbeknownst to many Mufakose holds a special place in the country’s sporting history for being one of the first “ghettoes” to embrace the game of tennis in an era when the sport was regarded as elitist and popular in the leafy low-density suburbs.

BY DANIEL NHAKANISO HARARE’S township of Mufakose, now popularly known as “Mufombi” in local street lingo is stereotypically associated with social ills such as drug abuse, high crime and general hooliganism.

In sport the low income high-density suburb located in the southwestern area of Harare is famed for its rich football talent, having continuously churned out players such as current Zimbabwe Warriors poster boy Khama Billiat.

Unbeknownst to many Mufakose holds a special place in the country’s sporting history for being one of the first “ghettoes” to embrace the game of tennis in an era when the sport was regarded as elitist and popular in the leafy low-density suburbs.

The suburb’s rich tennis history is closely linked to the Mufakose Tennis Agency, which was formed by the well respected tennis coach and administrator Albert Nhamoyebonde in 1984.

Since its formation in 1984 the Mufakose Tennis Agency has churned out hundreds of tennis stars and coaches, some of whom are now coaching locally and around the world including Martin Dzuwa, who became the first black person to win the Zim Open tennis title in 1995.

At one time, tennis became the number one sport in the township especially in the late 90s — a time when Dzuwa and Nigel Badza were fringe players in the Davis Cup team during the era of the Black brothers, Byron and Wayne.

The Mufakose Tennis Agency is credited for producing the late Claudio Murape, who was the country’s first black non playing captain of the Zimbabwe Davis team and his brother Richmore, one of the finest development coaches.

There are also several coaches, who are now based abroad including the US-based duo of Julius Mashonganyika and Andrew Mawire, England-based Wisdom Ngoma as well as Peter Nyamande, Masimba Muchenje and Hilton Nyakabau who are coaching in Kenya just to mention a few.

But perhaps one of the most unheralded coaches, who came through the Mufakose Tennis Agency’s conveyor belt is the South Africa-based top coach Anthony Harris, the coach of South Africa’s rising tennis star Lloyd Harris (no relation).

Harris recruited his namesake to the Academy in 2012 and the partnership has blossomed, with a balance between on-court seriousness and off-court fun.

The 24-year-old Lloyd Harris, recently captured global attention after reaching the quarterfinals of the US Open men’s singles draw to cap a memorable season that included a win over Rafael Nadal at the Washington Open last month.

At a time when he has been receiving global attention for transforming  his namesake Lloyd Harris into one of the global game’s rising stars, Harare-born Anthony, who is a former winner of the Zimbabwe Open Championship, reflected on the time he coached in Mufakose.

He joined the Mufakose Tennis Agency, then known as the Mufakose Junior Tennis Club in April 1992 as assistant to Nhamoyebonde.

Then aged 27, Harris was still in the early stages of his coaching career having previously returned from the US where he had been part of the University of North Texas State team on a tennis scholarship.

The now revered coach said his experiences while coaching in Mufakose inspired him to establish his own academy in Cape Town in 2012.

“When I came back from university before I started professional coaching, I returned to Zimbabwe where I joined the Mufakose Tennis Coaching Agency. I played league tennis for Mufakose and I started coaching the kids there under Albert Nhamoyebonde, this time it left a special place in my heart,” Harris said in an exclusive interview with The Sports Hub this week.

“At the age of 44 after years of being involved in tennis at the highest levels around the world, I felt I was ready to follow my heart and return to Africa and continue what I started in Mufakose, this was my inspiration to start the academy in Africa.”

Harris started the academy in 2012 with his wife, Dionne Harris, who is also Zimbabwean, with the ultimate aim of giving young talent on the continent an equal opportunity to excel, irrespective of background or financial means.

In 2013, Dionne and Anthony purchased the facility in Sea Point that would become the Academy’s home.

“Anthony and I came from Zimbabwe, where we saw the wealthy, white, sort of colonial tennis clubs keeping out anyone who couldn’t pay,” said Dionne in an interview with GroundUp, a South African-based not-for-profit news agency. “It eventually inspired him to give an opportunity to kids who, with a little help, could someday become tennis champions themselves.”

Lloyd Harris, who recently reached a career-high world ranking of number 31 after his remarkable run at the US Open, is their most successful former pupil.

Kids attend from all over: Cape Town, Johannesburg, Mauritius, Egypt, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Slovakia.

The academy is also home to some of Zimbabwe’s top tennis talents including the country’s highest female ranked player Valeria Bhunu as well as rising young stars such as Sasha Chimedza and Ben Badza among others.

Anthony based the training program at his academy on the Rafa Nadal Academy in Spain where pupils have a rigorous training schedule five days a week, playing tennis for two hours in the morning and two hours in the afternoon, with an additional hour of conditioning during both sessions.

Most full-day pupils are home-schooled to keep them focused on improving their skills.

“Lloyd (Harris) started with me when he was 14, ten years ago, it has been a long journey and for us to this year reach an ATP ranking of 31 and to make the quarterfinals of a Grand Glam was a great feeling of joy and belief that we were in the right direction and we were moving forward.

“Lloyd is a player who never received a wild card so we followed the correct steps and fought from the bottom to the top. So it’s huge for all kids in Africa to see that it can be done from Africa and hopefully they too will have the belief they can make it,” he said.

Harris also spoke fondly about Zimbabwe’s top ranked female tennis player Bhunu, who he feels could have been competing at the same level with Harris had it not been for a serious injury she suffered at the age of 17.

The 26 year-old Bhunu, who won the Zimbabwe Open title in 2010 aged only 15, is working hard to get back to her best form and recently clinched her first singles title on the ITF World Tennis Tour in almost six years in Monastir, Tunisia in late June.

Last week she reached the singles final of the Jozi Open in South Africa before being knocked out in the quarterfinals of the SA Spring Open in Johannesburg.

Harris believes she is on the right track in her comeback thus far although they are taking it one tournament at a time.

“Valeria was a world top junior. She started at the academy together with Lloyd but at 17 she broke a bone in her hand and this put her out for two years while Lloyd went pro,” Harris revealed.

“After she recovered from the injury we started again, but a lot of changes happened on the ITF Tour and her family decided she should get her engineering degree, and then go back, so she only started playing again in January 2021 and in seven months has made huge strides forward, we have set realistic goals for her progression and so far we are on track,” he said.

Harris also shared his thoughts on Zimbabwe tennis, which he says is blessed with quality and passionate coaches.

“Because I’m not involved it’s tough to assess (the level of tennis in Zimbabwe now compared to the past) but, I do know that Zimbabwe has high quality coaches with real passion and desire, and lots of talent.  I believe for success in tennis today, there must be a healthy, professional and accountable environment.

“This is key. If these factors are in place as a foundation, only great things will come.”

Born and bred in Harare, Harris was a multitalented sportsperson from a young age excelling in a wide range of sporting disciplines while at school before he decided to focus only on tennis at the age of 14 in 1981.

Four years later he won the Zimbabwe Men’s Championships to become the country’s top ranked player.

“At this point my family decided I should get an education and so I received a tennis scholarship to the USA, where I went at age 18. After university I felt I had missed the window to go professional and so started coaching high performance tennis players under a Dutch coach Hans Felius. My first professional task was a Russian player at that time ranked 120 in the world; with her we reached top 30 WTA. After this I continued in professional coaching and I worked with (top Israeli tennis player) Dudi Sela who reached 27th in the ATP singles rankings and Yoni Earlich also from Israel who reached number five in the world in ATP doubles.”

After starting his own academy, Harris’ ultimate goal is to produce a tennis champion from Africa and after his namesake’s success in New York recently, he appears well on course.

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