Stepping out of the airport alone, I am filled with anxiety and nervousness wondering whether or not there will be someone from the tournament there to pick me up. Here I am, all by myself, in an African country and wondering how in the world my parents agreed to send me here. I was excited at first about the idea that this new independence would conjure up the strength needed to start pulling out the tough matches I was losing so closely in the third set. It was the first time I had travelled without a coach, friend or parent, and it was an adventure I thought I was ready for. But, after a nine-hour flight to London, then another four-hour leg to Lagos, Nigeria, I asked myself, “Is this really worth it?” Did I really travel halfway around the world to chase after “easy” points.
The tough thing about tennis is that you are always running … no make that chasing … after points. People will travel 50 weeks out of the year to accumulate these invisible points. I could not quite understand that even if I had a great year, as soon as the following year came around, it seemed as if I was starting back at zero because I had to defend the points I had made the previous year or all that hard work would be for naught.
So, there I sat waiting for my bags to arrive in the baggage claim area, and I prayed that my bags would actually make it on to what seemed the 1010 B.C.-made baggage carousel. I saw a couple of other tennis players trickle in behind me, and I was grateful to see foreigners that shared the same predicament as myself. It was here I realized that there were many other tennis players travelling far and beyond to get these life or death points. It was also here that I realized that these points were not going to be quite so easy after all. There were athletes from Russia, Germany, Croatia, Australia, India, the United States, Italy, Spain, and of course, Africa. It was like a mini-Olympics in Lagos, Nigeria.
I look up and smile with relief because I see my huge Prince bag roll gingerly into sight, and I also smile because I see a male friend from the Bahamas whom I have not seen since juniors. I felt at ease for a second because I now had a friend with me on this adventure, but that serenity quickly disappeared when I saw the dilapidated bus they had arranged to transport us to the hotel. Did I mention it was 4:00 a.m.?
We all loaded our belongings on to this sad excuse for a bus and are rushed to sit down by our escort, Valentine. Valentine shouts at the top of his lungs in a strong African accent, “Welcome to Nigeria!” I have seen movies based in Africa and I had an image in my mind of what to expect, but nothing could prepare me for what we saw during my time in Nigeria.
To describe the poverty is a difficult task. I grew up in a third world country, but to see the magnitude of beggary and displacement of people in Nigeria was a very depressing experience. We arrived at our hotel, which was located literally in the middle of a flea market. This market was not like the markets you see in New York City on a sunny day. There were thousands and thousands of people selling live chickens, fruits, vegetables, garments and any thing under the sun. I have never seen this many people in my life. Interestingly enough, this wonderful landmark seemed normal to me by the time I left Nigeria. And when our bus arrived, the local’s eyes widened and filled with excitement in the hopes of making many sales.
Our hotel was called “The Palace,” this was an oxymoron if ever there was one. The first thing I saw in my room was my mountainous bed which had curves and valleys so deep that every morning I had to do an extra half-an-hour of stretching just to feel relatively normal again.
I was scheduled to be in Nigeria for a four-week tour. There were four WTA challengers in a row, but at this point, I could not fathom lasting more than a week. We loaded our bus the next morning to go to the tournament site to get in some practice. My first task was to find someone to practice with, but as all the girls in the tournament either came with a friend or coach, and there didn’t seem to be anybody available. I thought if worst came to worst, I could just take a run and do some footwork drills.
As we drove to the site, we passed slums and a multitude of children who ran to our bus begging for any form of charity. It was a sad sight to see and comprehend. I realized how unfair life seemed and how blessed I truly was. The basic necessities that we take for granted, such as clean water, food and shelter, was an every day struggle for the majority of the people in Nigeria. Do not get me wrong, there were some nice places and privileged areas in Lagos, but those were not the areas that struck a cord with me.
Arriving at the tennis courts, expecting that they would resemble the bed at my hotel, I was pleasantly surprised to see a magnificent stadium with newly resurfaced courts and beautiful facilities. It did not seem right or possible, but what a revelation and testament to the beauty of sport.
In a country where children have to fight for food and struggle for an education, there were some youngsters from Nigeria who got to experience the same sport I grew up playing on the other side of the world. It was something we had in common.
Then Valentine, our memorable guide, came out of the locker room and asked me, “If I wanted to hit a few balls,” and I answered with extreme relief, “Sure, I would love to.”
You might well ask what does all of this have to do with tennis, but this is one of the many wonderful experiences that the journey of this sport has afforded me. I ended up staying in Nigeria for the full four weeks and the “easy” points turned out to be more difficult than expected. I had great success in the doubles draws, winning three out of the four weeks, and I left with a sense of accomplishment that I had survived my first trip alone on tour.
Although I did not have my mom or coach cheering for me, I had my new friends from Lagos who apparently adopted me as one of their own. I will never forget the chants of “Jamaica, Jamaica” when I would win a point. To play in a packed stadium and see the kids that I had just seen outside the gates asking for money, come up to me and tell me how excited they were to have watched me play and because of me they wanted to start playing tennis was one of the most unforgettable moments in my life. I left every single piece of tennis clothing and four of my five racquets with those kids so that they might have the chance to travel to a distant country one day and experience another side of the world as well.
As I finally boarded my plane back to America after hugging Valentine goodbye, I felt blessed and grateful for the experience I just had. The points which I could only think about before I got there seemed so unimportant now. To say that I lived in Lagos, Nigeria for four weeks seemed a much more impressive achievement and an experience I can say truly changed my perspective on life. The life and death attitude of hitting a tennis ball did not seem quite so important after all.
I learned to be grateful for the things that I have and to be aware of what I needed, not just what I wanted, and to take joy in life itself and treasure the moments that make up this interesting journey.
Unto to the next tournament … got to get those points!