Puffing and pulsing, Katarina Karanja, 23, dashes full-stretch to smash a return shot to her opponent. The tennis ball whishing and popping against racquets and the concrete court is the dominant sound in the otherwise quiet court. Occasionally, a grunt escapes either side of the net, as the players whip lobs and groundstrokes at each other.
It has been slightly over an hour and a half since kick-off, but with every tick tack of the clock, the contest gets more electrifying and tougher. Both divides of the net are sopping in sweat and exhaustion, yet the game has to go on.
The vitality, the fervour and significance with which Katarina wields her racquet while patrolling her baseline are qualities of one taking part in a high-stakes tournament, except that this is simply a training session. Here, at the Muthaiga Country Club, is where Katarina spends most of her afternoons training whenever she is in the country.
This remarkable woman represented Kenya in 2015 during the All-Africa Games held in Congo, where Kenya was third overall in women’s singles. “It was the most remarkable moment of my life, flying the Kenyan flag in a foreign country. It gave me a formidable feeling of patriotism, and motivated me to put more work to playing and training.”
This is not all, while studying at Wykeham Collegiate in South Africa, Katarina was selected to represent South Africa in a juniors tourney in Australia. She also won the Coast Open twice when she was 18 years.
An apple does not fall far from the tree. Katarina, 23, took after her father, Ian Karanja, whose name is almost synonymous with Kenyan tennis of the 1970s and 80s.
“I have known lawn tennis the best part of my life, having begun playing at six years.
I used to follow my dad to the court at Muthaiga Country Club where he was the tennis captain.
I would watch him play and try to imitate him. He would tell me magical stories and adventures from his Kenya Open days. It is him who opened up this magical, amazing, frustrating and tough world to me.”
Katarina is currently a Third Year student at Missouri University, where she is studying Psychology.
“Tennis is a mental sport, which is both exciting and frustrating.
When I was 17, I was having difficulty withstanding the pressures of the sport. I would easily lose concentration and even my temper while playing. Choosing to study Psychology was therefore a necessity, rather than merely an interest. It helps me to analyse and understand the game better.”
Tennis has seen Katarina travel the world, the best illustration of which is between 2014 and 2016 where she was in Spain participating in tournaments and training at the top-level with world-famous instructors.
“Initially my stay was to last a year, but it was extended for two more years. Spain is like the home of tennis. The three years in Barcelona is the most memorable episode in my tennis career. I trained and played in ultramodern courts, met and interacted with big names in the world of tennis including Garbiñe Muguruza, Rafael Nadal and Tommy Robredo, and had a lot of fun. It was incredible.” Katarina is listed in the International Tennis Federation (ITF), as a tennis player, and is registered with the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA).
After completing her studies, she intends to be involved with the sport through offering technical advice to players and coaches, and to jockey for position of tennis in Kenya’s sporting arena.
What are some of your most memorable times in the court?
I have a few - my most precious though was chatting with the legendary Swiss tennis player Martina Hingis during a training session in Spain. Martina held the World Number One spot in women singles in ATP ranking for a total of 209 weeks. It was mind-blowing listening to the iconic tennis figure.
What aspect of this sport fascinates you the most?
To play tennis, one must be mentally strong. I learnt the hard way that mental toughness counts for 80 per cent of your game. How you handle your emotions and deal with pressure during a match is important. It does not matter how excellent you are in training. The real test is when facing an opponent. This is my biggest fascination as well as my biggest weakness. But nothing excites me more than the environment of a tennis court. It is breath-taking. What is your take on the popularity and hence development of the sport in the country?
To be honest, when I think of tennis in Kenya, it makes me really sad. It distresses me whenever I hear delightful stories of how the tournament once attracted thousands of people that some would climb nearby trees to watch the matches. Today only a handful of people attend Kenya Open tournament matches, which makes me wonder what went wrong for the sport in Kenya.
In what tennis tournament do you dream of participating?
My biggest dream as a tennis player is to participate in the Roland Garros (French Open) and the Wimbledon. I hope to represent Kenya in the Fed Cup and the All-Africa Games in 2019. I also wish to compete in other tournaments across Africa, hoping to emulate Susan Wakhungu, Jane Davies and other incredible Kenyan tennis players.
If you had the power to change the face of tennis in Kenya, what would you do first?
As of now, it is not clear yet if there will be enough money to send the Kenyan women’s team to Moldova and the Fed Cup later this month.
Underfunding is the greatest hindrance to tennis in Kenya, which is what I would strongly lobby for. With proper funding, players will participate in more tournaments locally and internationally, which will in turn draw Kenyans’ following of the sport.
Rugby has thrived in Kenya largely because of sponsorship.
Katarina at a glance
She started playing lawn tennis at six years.
She is a third year student of psychology at Missouri University in the US.
She has had the privilege to train in Spain, where she met and interacted with with big names in the world of tennis, such as Garbiñe Muguruza, Rafael Nadal and Tommy Robredo.
She is listed in the International Tennis Federation (ITF) as a tennis player, and registered with the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA).
She hopes to represent Kenya in the Fed Cup and the All-Africa Games in 2019.