There is no family that is tipped to dominate the South African tennis scene like the Arends family. Robbie and Kelly Arends, for the last five years, have ripped through all age groups as they push themselves to become pro athletes against all odds.
What is more impressive is the support system that’s in place to make sure they achieve these goals in due course. The Sports Gazette spoke to the mother of the two bright stars, Juanita Arends to find out how the process has been taking shape behind the scene.
Currently, Kelly Arends (16) has ranked number one in South Africa in all her age groups, including winning a number of competitions such as the South African Masters on a few occasions. Her older brother Robbie (18) has also won the South African Masters and has recently captured his first ATP points. He also dominated all age groups like his sister.
This is the product of the work both Juanita and her husband, Karl put in early. They both have a background in playing league tennis and acquired their tennis badges to help coach the fundamentals of tennis.
“Karl coached our kids up until the age 12/13 and at that stage, Robbie was nailing Karl 6-0, 6-0, so there was no point in furthering that relationship (laughs). So then he went to the Anthony Harris Academy. They are rated in the top 10 in the world and they have a very good program.” she says.
The Anthony Harris Academy has opened their door for many children in South Africa to train at a high level and give themselves a chance at turning pro. But with the high rates that come with trying to make it as a tennis player, the academy’s relationship the MATCH Development Foundation helps ease this issue.
The Match Foundation also helps with finding sponsors all over the world to further invest in their players. A lot of the big names of South African tennis have come out of the academy like Lloyd Harris.
In sport, you find parents who put a lot of pressure on their kids to make it, however, with her coaching badges and her motherly love, Juanita has found a way to distinguish between her relationship as a “coach” and as a mother.
“No no with my children, I’m not their coach – I’m their mother. That’s why I entrusted them to Anthony Harris so I could stop and just be a mother. If a kid lacks discipline and love for the game, bye-bye.
“But don’t get me wrong, I’m not that type of parent that’s it’s ok for you to faff around because you’re not having a good day. If I have made the commitment to take you to train, you have to be honest with me and say “Mom I don’t want this”. I’m not going to keep shoving it in your face. I’ll do everything in my power to get you where you need to be, but you have to want it.” she says.
Even though they grew up and developed in the same system, Robbie and Kelly are two completely different players. From their mentality to how they approach a game on the court, they are chalk and cheese.
The difference between the two is that it looks like Robbie was born to do this. At every moment he knows exactly what he needs to do on the court. Robbie is a natural and Kelly is a fighter. Her style of play is described as “aggressive”. This is because, with everything she has done – she has to work twice as hard as anyone who comes up against her as she constantly has to prove she is the best in the business.
Regardless of their talent, they are still confronted with issues that hinder their performance and journey to the top. This is because of the systems put in place in South African sport. When going on tour, Tennis South Africa have put selection targets for teams all over the country. In a team of three, two on “merit” and one of colour. But what happens when the player of colour is number one in the country?
“The problem arises when you have Kelly in the team because she’s number one in the country at the time, yet you have the National old school coach who wants to put her as window dressing so while everybody is playing the match Kelly is walking up and down fetching water for them.”
The issue with selection targets is the fact that skin colour is used as the only criteria – not actual ability. This “chip on her shoulder” draws back to why she has a killer instinct on the court. She has never been given the opportunity to “just go enjoy it”, because of her skin tone – she has to always prove that she’s there on merit and not there to tick boxes.
Many team managers often say they need two “players of colour”, a sentiment that suggests that it’s not players that can play tennis they’re looking for but players of colour who can hold a racket. It’s important that an issue like this is sorted at a grassroots level, by making tennis accessible every day for kids in tough areas. It’s providing an option for them to get out of their situation. This is the only way.
Getting the number one in the country to play a player just filling up the selection targets is a double-edged sword, the number one in the country smashes him 6-0,6-0 and feels he didn’t really get a game, while the other player’s confidence is ruined because he has just been double-bageled and there is no further help to further his development as those opportunities weren’t available to him.
This is a deep-rooted problem and Tennis South Africa have to fix this.