Standing in the shadow of the Grenfell Tower flats during a cool, yet sunny day on the turf of Notting Hill’s Avondale Park, William Ndukwu, clad today in a bright red Adidas football top, champion shorts, white cap and matching trainers, rallies with two, tall, skinny, 13-year-old girls with bright eyes and clean strokes. He is sweating, while they are barely breaking one. It’s nearly two o’clock, time for the day’s business to arrive: about 20 Year One and Year Two students from a neighbouring school ready for their tennis lesson.
Ndukwu gives his daughter, Alisha, and her doubles partner, Julia, some money for lunch, while he gathers up the balls, passes out the racquets and dictates the day’s formation to his friends and co-coaches as they begin drills. “Ready position,” he says as they all line up and grasp their racquets by both hands. “Today we are working on taking the ball on the rise!
“I want you all to step in and instead of moving back, lean forward with your racquet back and strike the ball just as it peaks.” A light Nigerian accent from his days growing up in Lagos punctuates the air, granting the command an exotic flourish.
For more than 12 years now, this is the way Ndukwu has been teaching his protegees across England — in Manchester, Milton Keynes, where he lives with his family, and in Notting Hill — with some students going on to various high-profile academies and others joining college teams in the States. But so far, his pride and joy and greatest success has been Alisha, who in early May, travelled to Ghana for her first ITF tournament, the TFG Open Accra ITF J30 and came away with the title in both singles and doubles, a feat that is rare for most teenagers, let alone a first-timer on the international circuit. This week, she is in Abuja, Nigeria, playing the ITF J30 Abuja at the National Tennis Centre.
“Ghana was my first tournament out of the country, aside from a few in Europe, and it went better than I ever expected,” Alisha says. “ The courts were certainly faster than what I am used to here and I played two very good Ghanaians — the types that just get everything back.
“But I took my game to the net and ended the points aggressively. That game plan saw me through.”
It’s an opportunity the elder Ndukwu was not afforded growing up in Lagos. The son of a steward and a trader with five brothers and sisters, Ndukwu started his tennis career like many other youngsters in Nigeria: he was a ball boy — sometimes called a “ball picker” — at his local tennis club. “We started after school and collected the balls for the paying members until they left for the day and then we could have a hit,” Ndukwu says. “Nigeria is not like it is here. There is no middle class, no diversity, no mixed housing — nothing like having council flats in Notting Hill near parks or tennis clubs.
“The rich people live in one area of the city and have the memberships. And on tour, they can play without worrying about winning. If you’re someone like me — having to win for money to pay the rent or take care of your parents, you get nervous, you get tight and next thing you know, you lose.”
Nonetheless, Ndukwu managed to play some junior tournaments and even worked his way into the ITF Futures events around Africa after gaining a sponsor from Singapore. But eventually, the tour results didn’t come and the funding ran out. Many African tennis federations, including Nigeria’s, struggle to raise money, solicit and receive equipment from overseas, properly instruct coaches and effectively support rising youth and professional players. While the International Tennis Federation (ITF) has run two ITF/CAT advanced training centres for exceptional youth in Casablanca, Morocco and Nairobi, Kenya — most recently consolidating the programmes with a new campus in Tunis, Tunisia — they did not exist in Ndukwu’s youth. He eventually settled in Manchester, and started giving lessons.
And since Alisha took a shine to a tennis racquet, Ndukwu has traded his dad hat for his coaching cap to help her fulfil her dream of turning pro. Two days per week, he devotes entirely to his daughter, and three days per week — with Alisha in tow and doing school online — he commutes from Milton-Keynes, where he and his family live, to teach on West London courts.
“At first it was a bit difficult because I am her dad, but then I realised that she wouldn’t get anywhere if I wasn’t her coach. So I started treating her just like any other student — she gets no breaks from me,” Ndukwu says. “After we’re done for the day, she is my daughter again.”
Alisha Ndukwu also admits the transition took a few weeks, but she adjusted and now prefers her father’s method. “If he was easy on me — if he was my dad all the time — I wouldn’t be winning,” she says. “I used to have a love/hate relationship with having my dad as my coach. “I don’t hit with him all the time, however, now I don’t think I could have anyone else there for me like he is.”
It’s a set of circumstances — despite the sometimes long days and sacrifices — that Ndukwu realises he might not be able to provide for his daughter in Nigeria. Although he usually remains in England when Alisha and her mother travel for tournaments, Ndukwu has returned to Nigeria several times to give coaching seminars and bring balls, shoes and racquets to kids in need. “I’ll always go on eBay before we leave to pick up some gear for the students,” he says.
“I can’t do much — I don’t make that much money. But kids will show up on court in bare feet. They’ll do anything to play down there.”