When I was a teen, I loved playing tennis. I’d never had lessons so I was a rubbish player, but there was something so satisfying getting the ball over the net. It was almost meditative… back and forth, back and forth, especially when I managed to get ‘in the flow’. Admittedly at my amateur level that didn’t happen often, but I always had a good laugh with my partner.
Fast forward to my arrival in Gaborone many years later. I was on a mission to learn new things and improve my fitness, so tennis seemed like a natural fit. Petrus Molefe was recommended by friends so I started taking lessons with him weekly.
He was a patient, kind, and obviously skilled tennis coach. Sadly I stopped when I learned I was pregnant with my second daughter, but during my lessons at least I learned how to properly hold the racket.
Last week I caught up with Petrus to get a bigger view of tennis in Botswana. Here’s what he had to say.
Tell me about tennis in Botswana.
Tennis is a hidden gem in Gaborone. It’s not a well-tapped sport, but there’s a lot of initial interest.
The biggest barrier to people getting out and playing is the weather; it can get too hot.
Another barrier is that many coaches don’t know how to make tennis fun and appealing for kids. But if you bring in colourful things like hula hoops and games for flavour, kids will start enjoying it more. Tennis doesn’t need to be forehand, backhand 100% of the time.
What age is the “sweet spot” for a child to start playing tennis?
The earlier you start the kid, the more chances there are in the sport. If the child has talent or passion to work with, a good coach can guide them towards opportunities.
The tricky thing is that most 10-12 year olds are already competitive with others and themselves. They might not want to go through all the learning stages needed to get to where they need to go.
The youngest kid I’m coaching now started with me at the age 4.5. The dad and auntie played, so she might have the tennis gene in her. She’s good; I can see it already.
How would a child start lessons?
Normally what happens is that I bring the child for a quick assessment so I can see his/her natural strength and ability. We need to see if the child is ‘ready’. A boy might be 6 years old but still too small, meaning that the smallest racket might be too heavy for him.
I check their gross motor skills and hand to eye coordination, but these are skills that I need to teach so I don’t assess based on them.
From there we’d start with 30 minute lessons. We try for a minimum of two a week because otherwise they forget things between lessons.
If your child is too young or small to start, you can still see if they’ll have an interest in the sport by playing ball games at home and working on their ability to throw, catch, and bounce balls. And bring them to the court so they can get a feel for it.
Where are the best places to buy tennis gear?
Mr Price Sport and Game are the shops that generally have the 17 inch rackets that the kids need.
Children learn with different tennis balls altogether, ones that are very light and made of sponge. They progress through three stages: red balls (available at Game) are the biggest and slowest spongy balls. Then they’ll progress to orange balls, then green balls before they are ready to play with normal tennis balls.
Unfortunately adult tennis rackets are hard to find in Gabs. You won’t get a good balance here. You’ll be able to find big rackets but I wouldn’t recommend them.
What about courts? Where can the public go to play tennis in Gabs?
My first recommendation is the Gaborone Club because it offers other things: squash courts, lawn bowls, football pitch, swimming pool, four tennis court, restaurant and bar. An annual membership offers a lot of value for the whole family.
Notwane Club is also an excellent club and has a lot of tennis courts. You need to be a member or pay a day fee of P30 for a court.
Avani Hotel and the Grand Palm Hotel also have courts (must be a hotel club card holder to play).
Lastly there are courts at some of the schools: Maru-a-Pula, Northside, Thornhill, and Broadhurst Primary. Check into their social tennis clubs if you’d like to play there.
How should someone choose a tennis coach?
I’ve recommended it to the Botswana Tennis Association, but we don’t currently have a national coaches registry.
Please choose a coach carefully and make sure that they’ve got a qualification that enables them to teach the level that you need. Coaches sometimes teach beyond their level, and this is not only poor teaching but can put the player at risk of injury.
I believe that there’s a ceiling in Botswana. A lot of kids aren’t reaching their potential because they’re not working with a coach that can teach them higher levels. A registry would help the public access details on which levels each coach can teach.
Tell me about your personal experience with tennis.
I was the first in Botswana to get professional rankings in tennis. Through that I got to work with coaches and attend academies around the world.
When I came home to Botswana it was natural for me to get into coaching. I always wanted to give back and help kids reach their potential in the sport.
What do you enjoy most about coaching?
Each person I coach is like a different project and it’s fulfilling to have an impact on other people.
Lastly, can you tell me what you think the best things about tennis are, overall?
For me, tennis is a life sport. Everything that you do on the court is self-achieved. And whatever you do in life, you have to take responsibility for the good and the bad.
Tennis nurtures leadership because you have to be self-aware and make decisions for yourself, by yourself.
And, obviously, I think it’s a fun sport. You’ve also got doubles tennis, which is more group focused than playing singles. Tennis can appeal to people who want to socialise as well as those who want to develop themselves more.
Tennis is one of those sports that you can pick up at age 6 and still play later in life. And just like golf, tennis is also a corporate sport. It has a way of getting people together to talk and seal a business deal.
Petrus, who runs Tennis Data Hub and coaches at the Gaborone Sport & Social Club, can teach beginner to high performance tennis, for players trying to get into the Pros. He focuses on private lessons and group tennis camps for kids & teens over the school holidays.
He’s currently planning a fundraiser for Tennis 4 SOS, a small tennis academy for the Botswana SOS Children Village in Tlokweng.