After Controversy

After Controversy, Can Tennis Clubs in Addis Return their Former Glory?

Ground tennis in Ethiopia dates back to the 1930s, when the first club was established in Addis Ababa. Since then, the sport has enjoyed a relatively loyal following, with a number of clubs and tournaments emerging throughout the country. Two years ago, however, the Addis Ababa Tennis Federation was banned from organising tournaments, following charges of human trafficking. After the ban, tennis enthusiasts say more should be done to promote the sport in the country, including increasing financial support. EBR’s Ashenafi Endale spoke with players and other stakeholders to learn more about the efforts to create a more robust tennis culture.

Ground tennis, a sport that lacks regular competition among clubs in Ethiopia, received a boost of support with the Copa Addis Ground Tennis Open Tournament, which took place from December 12, 2015 to January 3, 2016 at different tennis courts throughout the capital. The event was held for the first time since it took a forced hiatus two years ago.
Much to the amazement of the organisers, the Tournament attracted an unexpected number of participants, reaching a total of 264 players – of which 40 were women and 60 were under 18 years of age. The Tournament, which featured 16 clubs from Addis Ababa, was organised by the Addis Ababa Ground Tennis Federation.
“I am so happy to be part of this competition after two years,” says Melkamu Abera, 28, a tennis player who represented the Bole 19 Ground Tennis Club. “The Tournament will motivate players, which in turn uplifts the dying sport in the country.”
Two years ago, the Ethiopian Ground Tennis Federation ordered the Addis Ababa Ground Tennis Federation to stop organising and participating in local or international tournaments. The City Federation was suspended on charges of human trafficking because players knowingly stayed in foreign countries after competitions were complete instead of returning to Ethiopia.
Prior to the ban, there were typically at least seven major tennis tournaments per year in Ethiopia, excluding international tournaments and matches between foreign countries and sister cities. Most of those tournaments were organised by clubs in Addis Ababa, where ground tennis enjoys a relatively popular following. Currently, there are nine regional and two national federations. These regions combined have a total of 12 clubs.
Ground tennis began gaining traction in Addis Ababa when the Olympiakos Greek Club established the first group of players in the 1930s. It gained an even larger following after Emperor Haile Selassie provided land for the establishment of the Addis Ababa Ground Tennis Club in 1949.
Despite this long history, tennis enthusiasts in Addis Ababa say that the ban dealt a severe blow to their efforts to promote the sport in the capital. “The Ethiopian Ground Tennis Federation has done enough damage to us,” explains Wondwossen Abebe, an officer at the Addis Ababa Ground Tennis Federation. “Of course, there were structural problems in our Federation before. However, rather than correcting the system, they banned us, which was totally wrong.”
Yet, the federal organising body says chapters in the capital erred in their managerial practices. “They have been engaged in human trafficking in the name of participating in international competitions,” says Azeb Woldesellassie, Director of the Ethiopian Ground Tennis Federation, who says that it was the City Federation that banned the clubs operating in the capital, not the national federation.
However, Wondwossen maintains that the ban weakened the sport because prior to it most clubs in the capital had their own tennis courts and organised tournaments.
The current reality, however, is one in which cash-strapped clubs face financial hurdles in planning tournaments. In order to organise the recent Copa Open Tournament, the Federation that represents clubs in the capital had to rely on external financial support.
The Copa Open Tournament, which cost ETB164,000 to organise, was sponsored by companies like Heineken Brewery and East Africa Bottling. Two hotels also provided tennis courts free of charge. Heineken contributed ETB150,000; and of the total cost, ETB62,000 was allocated as prize monies for winners.
Some say the financial support provided to tennis demonstrates that it is given less attention in the country. Of the ETB4 million the Federal Sports Commission allocated to the 26 federations this year, only ETB118,000 was budgeted to the Addis Ababa Ground Tennis Federation. Even though this figure is up from the ETB74,000 last year, it is a fraction of the ETB532,000 needed to partly finance at least five tournaments in a year, according to Wondwossen.
Some even say the lacklustre support for the sport is demonstrated in the offices that are home to the sports federations. When one goes to the office of the Federal Sport Commission, where 26 federal and sport federations from Addis Ababa reside. Although federations like football and athletics have managed to rent their own offices, the Ethiopian and Addis Ababa Ground Tennis federations, along with other 24 similar institutions, are forced to share the building of the Commission. Some of these federations, including the Ethiopian Ground Tennis Federation, have just one director and operate without experts or supporting staff.
Officials at the Commission acknowledge that not all sports are treated equally. “There are always problems when things are in transition and the government has to wait until things clear up in order to provide more support,” said Nassir Legesse, Director of Public Relations Directorate at the Commission. “The federations, especially the federal one, need strong supervision and they have to be accountable if they are not functioning according to the law.”
Players suggest that this lack of support makes it difficult for them to participate in tournaments. “The sport is highly dependent on private companies and individuals, who are willing to support players as well as finance tournaments,” said Melkamu. “[This is especially true] for players above 18 years old. [They] have to depend on themselves since they cannot get sponsorship, even if he or she is talented.”
According to Nassir, the government is currently building the Koshe Ground Tennis Centre with ETB60 million and two others at Ras Hailu and Jan Meda Sport centres. Still, some think that more needs to be done: “There must be sport centres in each of the 10 districts in the capital,” said Wondwossen.
There are 23 fields in the capital, each with 2 to 5 tennis courts. The Addis Ababa Sport Bureau put the fields that are owned by the government under the management of consumer associations since the end of 2015.
But things might change in the future. The Addis Ababa Ground Tennis Federation says that it plans to organise five additional tournaments this year, according to Getahun Negash, a member of the executive committee of the Addis Ababa Ground Tennis Federation.
Government officials also say there are efforts to improve the sport, which can take it to a higher level. “The Addis Ababa Ground Tennis Federation is currently doing well. Still, the Federation’s structure and overall approach to the sport need [to employ a] knowledge-based and business-minded approach, since marketing is needed to get sponsors, host international tournaments, increase ground tennis fields in the capital, supply materials for players and develop the sport,” says Behailu Bekele, Training, Participation and Competition Core Process Owner at the Addis Ababa Youth and Sport Bureau. “When the Federation of Addis Ababa becomes stronger, others will follow.” EBR

4th Year • January 16 2016 – February 15 2016 • No. 35

Ashenafi Endale

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