Ronen Moralli couldn’t believe his eyes when he first arrived at the Arthur Ashe Tennis Center in Soweto, South Africa.The Israel Tennis Centers teams director, who guided Andy Ram and Yoni Erlich early in their careers and was also a coach on Israel’s Davis Cup team, was sent last March to southwest Johannesburg to help create some goodwill between Israel and South Africa.He thought he would be guiding experienced tennis coaches, but instead found himself facing dozens of children, many of them without shoes, on a dusty court in the township.
“I was totally depressed,” he recounted. “I arrived at the center and thought to myself: ‘Where do I start?’ But I told myself that I have 10 minutes to whine and then I approached this as a challenge. It ended up being the most amazing trip of my life.“I found it very hard to leave. When I first arrived I couldn’t wait to go, but when it came time to leave I had tears in my eyes. The kids were amazing; they gave me so much love and respect. It is difficult to put into words.”Four of those kids together with one of their coaches were in Israel over the past couple of weeks on a special trip arranged and funded by the Israel Tennis Centers, aimed at building on the success of Moralli’s original visit. Coach Moses Nthuping, together with two boys, Amukelani Mokone and Jansmith Moeng; and two girls, Mbali Langa and Lesego Mokgoetsi – all aged 11 to 13 – spent 10 days practicing on the tennis courts in Ramat Hasharon, Tel Aviv, Haifa and Jerusalem, while also visiting the sights of Israel.“For me, I’m Moses coming back home,” said a visibly excited Nthuping, who was making his first trip out of Africa at the age of 52. “I hope that by the time I leave here, all my prayers will be answered. I gained a lot from the experience of watching Ronen coach. He motivated me a lot; he is a very passionate person. I live tennis, I eat tennis and sleep tennis.So having the company of guys like Ronen is a great honor.”The Arthur Ashe Tennis Center in Soweto was originally built with funds donated by the former American great in the 1970s. Ashe, a former world No. 1 and the first black man to win the US Open and Wimbledon, fought against apartheid for much of his life. He hoped to set up a place for local youth to play and practice in Soweto, but not long after its opening in 1976, the courts were vandalized and the clubhouse was ransacked.Ashe had planned to one day help rebuild the center, but he died from AIDS-related pneumonia in 1993. He is believed to have contracted HIV from a blood transfusion during bypass heart surgery around a decade earlier.It ultimately took more than 30 years for the complex to be refurbished, in a joint partnership facilitated by Tennis South Africa with the Gauteng Province, City of Johannesburg and the Lottery Board. On March 31, 2007, the center was reopened by the widow of the former tennis legend, Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe.There are currently around 200 kids playing at the Ashe Center, but Nthuping is one of just two coaches due to the center’s financial difficulties.“I started coaching in the minors but when the ANC [African National Congress] government took over in 1994, things changed,” he said. “I was at home and I saw some tennis courts getting dilapidated and not being used, so I started utilizing those courts. I managed to receive some used rackets and balls, and I got the kids off the street and encouraged them to play tennis.“When the Ashe Center was opened again in 2007, Tennis South Africa noticed my work and realized, ‘There is a guy there we can use.’” One of the main problems according to Nthuping is the fact that there is no money to send players to take part in tournaments.“They are from disadvantaged communities and their parents can’t afford to send them to tournaments,” he explained. “Kids playing every day without competition, it doesn’t motivate them.They need to play tournaments against other kids.“We need sponsors so that we will be able to employ more coaches, because we want to grow the sport of tennis in Soweto.”Nthuping stressed that the work done at the center goes far beyond coaching tennis.“It will be my dream come true to see tennis growing in Soweto, having kids playing the sport and off the street,” he said. “One thing that is very important for us is to keep kids off the street, because they end up being hooked up to bad things.”The first connection between Israel and the Ashe Center was made by Arthur Lenk, Israeli ambassador to South Africa, Lesotho, Swaziland and Mauritius.Lenk was told about the center by South African Tennis Association president Bongani Zondi, and he contacted the Israel Tennis Centers in hopes they could provide some assistance.“He [Lenk] told me he is working in a very hostile environment and is looking to create some goodwill,” said Danny Gelley, CEO of the Israel Tennis Centers, a nonprofit that opened its first center in Ramat Hasharon in 1976 and has since helped over 400,000 children in its 14 centers stretched from Kiryat Shmona to Beersheba.“Ronen was there for two weeks and revolutionized the place. We have since been working on arranging their trip to Israel, and we are hoping to build on this. There is no doubt this creates goodwill.”Gelley said the Israel Tennis Centers’s donors were keen to help finance this project, as they too are concerned about the growing delegitimization of Israel around the world.There are still no concrete plans for a return trip, but one thing is for sure, Moralli will be desperate to be involved once more.“In South Africa I met kids who have nothing, but have everything – compared to our kids, who have everything but have nothing,” he said.“Our kids have iPhones and iPads and all the other insignificant things, while some of the kids there haven’t even got anything to eat. However, they do have the most significant thing, which is a smile and appreciation. These kids come from very tough backgrounds, but they came and gave their all.“I’d love to go back.”