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  • Writer's pictureMichael Augsberger

Out of Africa

A tournament unlike any the world over, the inaugural Teen World Open removed the toughest barriers from top junior players from emerging nations who lack the means to travel enough to improve their ITF rankings. It was a week to savor.

by Michael Augsberger

photos by Niko Ziakas

Desmond Ayaaba does not normally find himself near the spectacle. It too often takes place too far away from Accra. On the day of the final, he was one court away from it, playing for the bronze medal in the Teen World Open as the two finalists squared off next to him on the stadium court.

The Ghanaian junior talent was seven years old when his father died. Almost from that day, he was forced to help provide for his family as the oldest of the children. There was precious little time for schooling amidst providing lessons for pay, helping his mother make and sell whatever bits they could, and working on his own game.

In January 2022, Ayaaba was the 413th best junior in the world. In a few months he would win a junior ITF title in Côte d’Ivoire. His junior record is 23-13, evenly distributed between clay and hardcourt. But the costs of competing are enormous. Tragically, they run higher where people can least afford them—someone based in Ghana has to travel a lot farther for higher-level tournaments than, say, a Spaniard or an American. Ayaaba never ranked better than that career-high because he couldn’t afford to fly to any more tournaments, let alone lodge himself once he got there.

For too many budding tennis talents, the barriers to junior Grand Slams and the professional ranks, or to discovering life-changing educational opportunities that only the U.S. college system offers, are not their skills but the costs of flights and hotels. Evidence abounded at the Emilio Sanchez Academy. Nsahno Ndonfack of Cameroon rotated through the same two national-team shirts all week. South Africa’s Wian Roothman—his father a lawyer—had never been able to travel far enough to play on clay before.

This is what the Teen World Open was founded for. The Tennis Central Foundation brought them here, to Naples, Florida, to an international tournament that would have no such barriers. Players who demonstrated financial need from emerging nations in Africa, Asia, Europe and Latin America received flights to the States. They lived and dined together on site free of charge. They focused on the tennis and gave us a show to remember.

No minority player representing an African nation has ever won a Grand Slam. It is a small step toward changing that.


Teen World Open 2022 surprised in a lot of places on opening day, but not when it came to the overall favorite. Simon Myslivec, one of the Czech Republic’s top juniors who committed to Florida Atlantic in December, took care of business in what some called the group of death, defeating the top unseeded player, Ramy El Shoubaki (MAR), 6-3, 6-2.

“It’s all about mentality, if you think you’re the worse player, you’ll probably lose. I know I can win when I have a good day,” the number-one overall seed said. He had a good day, though he didn’t feel he played particularly well. “Both guys made mistakes from the baseline, Graham [Bourne, his second opponent] going too early trying to end the point on the third or fourth shot, not wanting to be patient. I knew Ramy was a little rusty too.”

“It’s been a long time since I’ve been able to practice on a daily basis,” the Moroccan said. Two weeks of rain had washed out his local courts around Rabat. “It takes a lot longer for clay to dry up after a monsoon than hard courts.” However, it was a day of upsets, too. Jose Andrade, the scholarship-Ecuadorian expected to win Group B, was firmly in control against Korea’s Woo Hyeon Jung until a blister seared his hand in the second set. It went all the way to a tiebreak in the third, both players fighting to stay upright---Woo had slipped on the clay and tweaked his knee. He took the tiebreak anyway, 7-4, to carve open Group B for the taking.

“Backhand in the second set, it was the clay and not the corner line like you’d think,” Woo said. “I won’t be one-hundred percent later because of that.” The Chuncheon-si, South Korea native was among the cohort of nine non-scholarship players adhering to the boarders’ usual schedule of 6:15 breakfast and two training sessions on top of the tournament.

Most of the upsets, like Andrade’s, had been foretold by the omen of injury. Though he battled to 3-2 scores in each first set, India’s Rushil Khosla saw his tournament dreams dashed after two retirements. For Rushil it was tennis elbow. Also succumbing to injury was Roothman, the South African, who could not follow up his headline first match because of leg problems. “I just think the clay, sliding, gave my feet too many problems as I don’t play on it,” Roothman said.


Along with financial scholarships, one of the major changes to the usual format meant to help players of limited means was the group stage. Sixteen players were drawn into four groups of four. Everyone was guaranteed at least three meaningful matches. Like the FIFA World Cup whose final the players watched together in the main hall, it produced shocking drama during the final round-robin matches. Only the top two in each group would move on, leaving two eliminated.

Ndonfack watched with bated breath as two Americans battled, Heyang Li and Gianluca Galasso. The Cameroonian needed a very specific result. You could feel the intensity rise on every court. Compared with ITF, ATP, and WTA events where players can earn little to absolutely nothing after elimination in the first round of qualies, it’s a welcome sight. In the end, Ndonfack got what he needed—a third-set win from Li to eliminate Galasso and send Li and Ndonfack through to the quarters.

Another popcorn match took place in Group A, where tall and hard-serving Graham Bourne met Ramy El Shoubaki and outlasted the higher-ranked ITF player 6-4 in the third set.

Ayaaba, victorious twice on opening day, played feisty American William Freshwater, almost half his height and deceptively boyish looking, to determine the winner of Group D. “It was his good return, and he keeps more balls in the court,” Ayaaba said of Freshwater’s win. Avenging that three-set loss, Ayaaba then fended off Li in the quarters, who had been 3-0 going into the match, 6-2, 6-3.

“One of the best tournaments in my life,” Ayaaba said. “I’m really thankful for its organization and happy to be here in the semis. I played my best, having good results because I want to go home with something. That’s important to me.”

To him, his serve was a difference in the match, as well as his pace. “I have a very good serve. I wasn’t waiting for him, I was aggressive. Keeping my first serve in and using pace against him so he couldn’t hit it back as he always wanted.”

By the end of this Day 2, three semifinalists were set in stone. Princeton, New Jersey’s Jack Ling and Myslivec cut through their groups and quarters like a knife through butter, though Ling did have to sidestep an 8-6 tiebreak against Bourne. (No one likes to play big servers.) They joined Ayaaba to continue into Wednesday.


The most contentious quarterfinal, however, remained in the balance overnight. Ndonfack sweated out a group finish that went down to the wire for him to qualify for the quarters. And then American William Freshwater, surprise conqueror of Group D, made him work that much more, until the rain came late in the third.

Both players tested the limits of their skill and their sportsmanship, not to mention the weather. Both of them wanted it that badly. Both fixated on the opponent’s taunting, which toed the line but never crossed it for a penalty. The difference between celebrating and taunting is, like beauty, in the eye of the beholder.

Early on, fiery C’mons and cries of Allez peppered the air. The competitors hoisted more line challenges than in the entire tournament combined. It was a fierce rivalry. Ndonfack either seemed to realize it was slightly unraveling his opponent or that he needed the vocal boost himself. He certainly found more to celebrate, including one double fault that resulted in a warning. But he also could be said to use the furor to motivate him—surely a fire had been lit in him since his opening upset loss to Heyang Li, and if it took toeing the line, it had got him playing much better tennis.

Then as the third set began, drizzle gradually soaked the courts through, slowing down conditions and leaving both to wonder when the call would come to suspend play. Freshwater tried to stay on serve at 2-3 and could have felt the more aggrieved by play continuing as the drizzle intensified but never reached full blast. He yielded the break under tough conditions.

“I mean, it’s hard to hit an overhead through raindrops,” Freshwater, a two-sport middle infielder who can’t choose favorites between baseball and tennis, barked on court. “And that’s all he’s been giving me lately. The court is slower. I think that’s what he wants.” Later he reflected.

“The emotions affected me more today,” he admitted. “Tomorrow I’ll just let it go.”


Pro tennis is not the only way out of poverty for these players. Nor is it the most likely one. NCAA head coaches visited the event and even more tuned in to the streaming online. Daniel Hangstefer, head coach at Idaho, and Jay Evans, head coach of Francis Marion, led the College Coaches’ Forum on Monday night.

“Make sure the who of your decision is what you want,” Hangstefer told the players convened in the academy’s main hall. “You’re working with the people who coach you, it has to be compatible. It’s not just about the Division I status.”

“You better know why you want to go to a particular program and ask questions in the interview,” Evans advised. “The worst interview I ever had lasted just a minute. The player didn’t have any questions for me.”

Ndonfack and Freshwater reconvened the next morning with a chair umpire to marshal the fireworks. Up a break at 4-2, Nsahno fought nerves and faster conditions before giving up the lead. It was deadeven with time running out.

Not totally gone was the animosity from the previous day. Both players had been warned then for unsporting behavior. After the resumption, Ndonfack challenged a baseline call that was overruled. He struck the ball across the court in anger for the only point penalty of the entire week. That put him down 15-30, but he steeled himself to win three successive points and hold.

Both players had match points in the third-set tiebreak. The Cameroonian went up 4-0 only to drop six straight. At 6-4, he saved two match points, including when Freshwater lined up a backhand pass that just missed.

“I went for my shots and missed them,” the American said. “I hit a lob at 6-5 that I might take back if I could, but I really wasn’t in a great position either way that point.”

Two points later it was Ndonfack raising his arms in triumph and locking eyes with Lionel Nouck, his coach, who had made the trek with him. It was the match of the tournament, but in less than an hour the duo would have to prepare for Jack Ling.

“I’m a little older than Freshwater, hit harder, more spin,” Ling said, evaluating the matchup against Ndonfack. “I can finish the points. [Ndonfack] runs down every ball but sometimes his balls can sit. A younger player like William might not hit through him, and their match was as tight as it can get. But me, now I have the power and weapons to hit through.”

In the semifinal Ndonfack squandered multiple 40-15 leads on serve, including at 2-2 in the second set, which was the difference in the match. “Coming back from that gives me confidence and messes his game up,” Ling said. “Tight moments that after I come back I have control, but if I hadn’t it would have been 50-50 at that point.

“When his serve and forehand are on, it’s good,” Ling said of his opponent. “Early on he was hitting winners left and right.”

Learning Spanish while homeschooling and training here, he also appreciates the chance to play an international final. “It’s giving kids an opportunity from these places,” he said. “We’re very lucky here, we have everything we need. And it’s exposure to other countries, that’s special too. I haven’t seen the kinds of games players have from other places except for China.”

Freshwater agreed. “These game styles are different from the way kids play here everyday in America,” he said. “Nsahno fought a bit more than the kids I play against a lot.”

It would end up a fine semifinal run for the Cameroonian. Indeed both African players, like Morocco in the World Cup, could advance no further after running into two giants at the top of their games. Myslivec was the titan who halted Ayaaba in just fifty-two minutes on the stadium court. They were destined to meet, then, in the bronze medal match. And for all the upsets and travel, it would be three scholarship players in the final four: A Czech, an American, and two Africans.


Between the pomp of the national anthems and the circumstance of Bizet’s overture on the podium, Myslivec put on a bravura performance that suitably matched the high bar he’d set all week in Naples. He took the final against the young man he’d respected most and expected to meet here, in emphatic style.

“I knew him from practice before the tournament,” Myslivec said. “I knew it would be the biggest test for me.” He faced it with the confidence of a top seed who had not dropped more than two games in a set and would presently concede just one more than that.

Ling forced himself to take more risks to combat the pressure under which Myslivec constantly kept him. He produced the shot of the match doing so, a running forehand crosscourt winner deep in the second set. But by then it was past the point when the match could have conceivably turned.

After a twenty-minute first set, Ling’s best chance to reverse the Czech’s march came at 1-1, 15-40. “Really good serves in the end of that game,” Myslivec recalled. “It was an important moment. With new balls, he had won his serve first. He came out really aggressive then.”

Myslivec held and then traded breaks. “Down 0-40 and that was the thing, I started sweating more and lost my grip on the racquet. One side was the better side with the sun and that’s where I broke him back again.” Thereon he kept holding serve en route to the title.

The two had practiced together last week and even played a set on hard courts, where Myslivec was able to break Ling only once in a 6-3 win. In the final on the green clay, he broke five times and saved all but one of the five break points he faced. Most of the time Myslivec was content to pressure Ling into errors, forcing him to risk foraging for new sustenance or else face extinction. Most of Ling’s attempts for winners missed just wide. Yet when Myslivec had to downshift and accelerate, he fired in powerful forehand winners and approached net wisely, winning all but once there.

Ling’s plan to play his first serve as often as possible paid off, and he never double faulted, but Myslivec commanded too much control on both first and second serve return points.

What the final lacked in drama, the third place match provided in spades. Cameroon’s Nsahno Ndonfack and Ghana’s Desmond Ayaaba made up for lost time; Wednesday less than an hour each on semifinal courts, Thursday a marathon thriller. That makes two three-set comebacks polished off with the tightest tiebreak victory possible in a row on the very same court for Ndonfack. He certainly rose to the occasion in the business end of this tournament.

To get there Ndonfack played the testiest matches of the tournament, and also the best ones. He came back twice and won two thirdset tiebreakers. His style grated on opponents and so did his imposition in the mental game. Say what you want about his line calls, though—he won two of the three matches with a fulltime chair umpire.

In the end Ndonfack took home the bronze and Ling the Sportsmanship Award as well as the silver. But Teen World Open 2022 will be remembered for those two Ndonfack matches-of-the-tournament and one dominant Czech player who reminded at least one fan of the great Ivan Lendl.

“I’m glad to have the invitation to play here,” Myslivec said. “It’s really good help for me. I advise everyone to take this opportunity. I could connect this tournament with Orange Bowl and got to make sure I could stay in the US for the whole thing. Everyone like me who’s dealing with the money problems, it’s so important.”

The champion had won the first round of qualies at the Orange Bowl before falling in a second-set tiebreak to a French player. Ordinarily that would mean his American trip would be over, with the expensive travel rearrangements that come with that.

He reflected on what it meant to hoist above his head the Charles Assalé Trophy, named for the man who rose from orphanhood to become the first prime minister of what became modern-day Cameroon. “Here it’s something different with the group stage. So many guys who lost a match, or had to retire dealing with injury, they got to play the same number of matches as me, who went all the way to the final. I signed with FAU while I was here, and the other guys got great introductions to college coaches, too.”

His next events would be Futures tournaments, in February. Those who would write the future of the Teen World Open will be compared to its first champion and his weeklong, authoritative display.


What will Desmond Ayaaba do from here? He turned eighteen the week after the tournament, with no more junior events to play and junior funding—what little there is in Ghana—all dried up. The fourth place player’s rating could place him at any number of colleges with the opportunities to live and work in the States that would offer. But he does not have the education to enroll. The coaches who would gladly duel each other over an 11 UTR can do nothing.

Surely a U.S. academy could bring him on to help him via its school or homeschooling. It is a rarity that coaches can travel with African juniors. Thanks to the scholarships at the Teen World Open, Ayaaba’s coach came. He devoted almost all of his time outside of coaching to finding contacts at these academies scattered throughout the warm U.S. and New York. Desmond may be aged-out of ITF events, he said. But, next year at least, not here.

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