Not Just a Sport We Play

Despite staggering challenges in some of the poorest parts of Africa, tennis can be the root to joy. Consider this story of an amazing tennis player who started as a shoeless ball boy in Cameroon. After a chance encounter in Paris, he is now making a difference for countless young people.

Pierre Otolo teaching in Cameroon. | © Pierre Otolo

Tennis is not just a sport we play, a game with rules, someone else’s performance we watch; it is an intensely personal issue, and part and parcel of our lives. 

We coerce our bodies to perform as well as possible. For most of us, there is a gap between our notion of what we want them to do and what we actually execute. But athletic prowess is not the main thing. There is something far deeper about this hitting of a ball over the net, using the racket as the tool to exercise our will, rethinking what we are doing with every single shot. It is vital to our innermost beings, central not just to our identities but to our relationship with everyone else in the world who plays tennis.

Yes, there is a wealth of associations with earlier time periods and other places we have been, a gazette of our lives over the course of time. During a game when we only have an allotment of an hour on the court and our bodies, in their eighth decade, can’t go much longer, anyway, we remember those summer afternoons long ago, when nothing else beckoned us, and we could play until we had finally had enough. More comfortable, finally, in our own boots, we recall the tournament when we clutched, and mentally have a second chance as calmer, more resolute beings. We think of the game when we could not speak the same verbal language of the person on the other side of the net, but the rules and smiles and congratulatory gestures said more than any words. And then there was the time we played the cocky full-of-himself bastard whom we simply had to beat, David versus Goliath. At the same time that the court is always the same exact size and proportions, the scoring and rules constant, the basics so sublimely universal, tennis exposes us to the variables of human existence.

And so a hulky, powerfully athletic man born to poverty in Cameroon and an over-privileged, over-educated American aesthete thirty years his senior developed, nearly twenty years ago, a fantastic friendship that only grows stronger with time. And my African colleague, as generous of heart as he is masterful in his cannonball serves and impeccable groundstrokes and surefire volleying, remains someone whose sheer courage, as well as his moxie, are heroic to me. We are there for each other as the most unlikely brothers in spirit in moments good and bad, at celebrations and hospital visits. But mainly, Pierre Otolo is the exemplar of triumph over adversity, of the will to make the most of life no matter how violent the assaults on us from outside as well as within, and tennis is the means of his triumph.

Some of us always need a next goal in life. I had gone past the age of fifty, was ready for a half-year sabbatical, decided that a term in Paris might put my sixteen-year-old daughter on an ideal educational path, and was starting to write the biography of the architect Le Corbusier, whose papers were all in an archive in the French capital.

And wasn’t Paris the city of my dreams, and the perfect meeting point for the rest of the family to welcome the new century as 1999 ended and 2000 arrived with the lights on the Eiffel Tower performing as never before?

Still, more objectives were needed; it has always been that way. I would get my French from okay to a higher level, and progress beyond the plateau my tennis game had been on for decades. Now or never! 

In Paris, when people learn that you live in the 6th or 7th arrondissement, they ask if you don’t “just love” the tennis courts in the Luxembourg Gardens. They are, after all, one of the most splendid public amenities in this most beautiful of neighborhoods in this most heavenly of cities. The only problem is that to get half an hour playing time on them is harder than it would have been for someone who was not Protestant to be admitted to the West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills in the 1950s. In the royal gardens of a country rumored to have had a revolution, you—presumably—can get a court if you find exactly the right moment to reserve one via the Internet. Regardless, most of the time none are available because of mysterious systems where a group of insiders, allegedly not able to book as often as they do, manage to get just the court they want. Oh, once or twice I have snarled a half hour on a drizzly day at 8 a.m., but otherwise those wonderfully positioned courts remain like some sort of magic kingdom. Only for Members.

On the other hand, one of the many wonders of tennis is that it can take you to parts of a city you would not know otherwise. Did you realize that almost on top of the Gare Montparnasse, in an urban plaza that looks like one of the invented cityscapes of the Italian artist Giorgio De Chirico, there are a bunch of nice courts, set pleasantly amidst trees, at a place called Tennis Atlantique? And you can book them. I phoned, initially to ask if there was anyone who would be a partner for someone new in town, or else give me a lesson. Pierre was working at the reception desk that day, and answered the phone. “Il n’y a pas de souci.” We scheduled a lesson for the next day. 

Pierre still remembers the details vividly. He came out with a basket of balls. “Je ne t’ai pas favorisé, même si tu étais plus âgé. Comme la plupart de mes élèves. J’ai donné ma leçon comme si tu étais un garcon de quinze ans. Tu étais venu pour jouer, suivre ton cours, et même s’il faisait extrêmement chaud, je ne t’ai pas fait de cadeaux : je t’ai même vraiment fait souffrir. Je n’ai rien dit, mais tu as bien tenu une heure, malgré les trente degrés !” 

I wanted some sort of eye-opening change in my life as well as greater athletic skills. But I had not anticipated tennis as the source of such profound transformation. It became my introduction to sub-Saharan Africa in a way that has changed my life beyond all imagining. This was not just because I had to tough out the heat during an unusually hot Parisian summer—I had been brought up never to complain about the weather; if I said it was hot on the tennis court, my mother told me to know how lucky I was not to be a postman or traffic cop in uniform out in the sun all day long. It was because, through Pierre, I learned a lot of realities of African life: an essential first exposure to the sort of place where today I run a non-profit that works in the fields of education, medicine, and making life better for people who have relatively little.

That is the power of tennis: it can alter you to the core. It can happen if you are born in a world of privilege where the nearby club with its lovely striped awnings is at your beck and call, but it can occur equally, and far more miraculously, if you discover the sport in a world where others do not even know that this game exists. 

So it was with Pierre. He was born in Yaoundé. In a country where French and English are both official languages, depending on who colonized a given region, they speak of “le tennis” or “tennis,” but there is no equivalent term in the local Beti. Beti is Pierre’s maternal language, one of the eighty dialects spoken in Cameroon. While, as with Wolof, you can find “return” as in cricket, or “serve” as in putting a platter of couscous on the table, “tennis” is not sufficiently known to have its own word.

Pierre discovered that tennis existed when he was fourteen years old. On the first day of class in a new school, everyone was supposed to assemble in the courtyard to sing the national anthem. Pierre and two friends had not heard the announcement that they were supposed to join the gathering and stop talking. It was not what we would call a criminal offense, just some normal teenage clowning around. Still, Pierre and his two friends each received “vingt coups de fouet devant les trois cents autres élèves”—a mighty price for not lining up and being silent. “Ce soir-là, je suis rentré chez moi et j’ai dit à mon père que je n’avais plus envie d’aller à l’école.” 

Pierre’s father, a policeman, was tough and demanding with his eight daughters and two sons, but he said nothing about what had happened that day. To Pierre’s surprise, his normally strict father was not angry. Instead, he found a solution to his son’s woes. Now that his father is no longer alive, Pierre will never know what prompted his father to take the action he took, but in effect he exemplified the will to solve problems that is inbred in Pierre to this day. The day following Pierre’s humiliation, his father took him, not by accident, to meet a friend who lived 200 meters from their house. The neighbor was Yannick Noah’s uncle, and immersed in the sport of tennis. This still does not explain precisely why the father of the wounded teenage boy, amiable and responsible but not a good student, introduced him to a person in the world of tennis, but Noah’s uncle spotted an athletic lad who could do what was asked of him, and made him a “ramasseur de balles”—a ball boy. 

Pierre had been brought up in a household where his father got up at 4 a.m. and the children cleaned the house and fetched wood for the fire before walking five kilometers to school, so he was used to doing what was expected of him. He was a nimble, alert ball boy. And in chasing those balls and throwing them precisely to the player who needed them or to another of the ball boys who was part of the relay, he yearned to try the game those people with the rackets in their hands were playing.

The cultural center Thread, in the Senegalese village Sinthian, hosts an annual soccer tournament that draws thousands of people to the village. Soon there will also be a tennis court. | © Giovanni Hänninen

The people playing tennis in that small private club in Yaoundé—a bustling city, the second largest in Cameroon, most of its population of 2.5 million people native Africans too poor even to consider the idea of recreation—were expats. They were all white, many of them diplomats, mostly French, Canadian, American, or English. They considered the midday heat insufferable for being on the tennis court. 

At those times when the club members were lingering over their lunches of seafood platters or chefs’ salads (Cameroonian food is among the best in Africa, but club menus are the same everywhere, and specialties like the indigenous ndolè and nkui and tchap and eru and nfiang owonda were not the choice of expats, even if taro and cassava made their way onto the table,) and then cooling off in the pool, the ball boys were able to use the tennis courts. Pierre did not have shoes with which to play, and was too poor to buy a pair, but he began to play with bare feet. It did not occur to him to be bothered by the effects on the skin as he ran barefoot all over the court “le quick”—synthetic that was hot enough to fry an egg in the midday sun.

Pierre got “un petit peu d’argent” for his daily hours of service as a ball boy. The pay enabled him to eat and stay correctly dressed. For the first few months, he continued to attend school—at night—but mainly he exalted in the chance to play the game. A white player gave him a pair of tennis shoes he was about to chuck into the garbage can. They were cracked, and their soles had holes in them, but, as we all know, footwear feet is almost as important a piece of tennis equipment as the racket, and those crumbling shoes enabled Pierre to progress at this sport he was growing to love. “Tout de suite, j’étais très doué.” Pierre says this matter-of-factly, not boastfully, as if it was just something that happened to him. 

He could not play for long during those midday sessions in the brutal sun—the white people would return to the courts as soon as the temperatures began to cool—but when he could play, Pierre played well. “A gentleman from Washington”—Joseph Ingram (Pierre easily recalls the name, but does not know exactly what “Mr. Ingram” did, except that it had to do with finances and diplomacy—asked him to play. He admired the remarkable Pierre, his seriousness of purpose and affable manner as well, as his top-notch tennis strokes. When Mr. Ingram was going back to the US, he gave Pierre a racket. It was not a discard, but a brand new one, of good quality: Pierre’s first. By the time he was sixteen, the boy who had started the sport only two years earlier was playing tournaments. 

I have heard the name “Joseph Ingram” from Pierre for years now, and once tried, without success, to get in touch with him. But I have now discovered that he is a lucid, insightful writer for “iPolitics,” a Canadian on-line publication, and that, during his thirty years of working with the World Bank, was Director of the Bank’s office in Cameroon. He was at one time Special Representative to the UN. These are major positions, one might say of global significance, but Joseph Ingram’s acquisition of that racquet for Pierre—a brand new one—is an example of the form of human action celebrated by William Wordsworth in his 1798 Tintern Abbey, one of Wordsworth’s many poems that evoke universal and timeless values. Wordsworth writes of
feelings too
Of unremembered pleasure: such, perhaps,
As have no slight or trivial influence
On that best portion of a good man’s life,
His little, nameless, unremembered acts
Of kindness and of love.
Whether or not Joseph Ingram recalls going to a pro shop or sporting goods store, selecting, and buying that racket for Pierre—the grip still wrapped in its tight plastic—one feels certain that it was one of quality, the type suited to a player with powerful groundstrokes and a lacing serve. And that Pierre remembers it vividly, and always will.

Tennis is a great way for girls and boys to improve health and practice the values of sport. | © Pierre Otolo

The other day, hitting a tennis ball in London with my grandson, I saw a superb young player—probably about twelve years old—being trained intensely by a pro. The child was being nurtured for greatness. Based on the quality of his topspin forehands whipping crosscourt, the backhands that soared wherever he aimed them, and the serves which improved by the minute with his own impatience if his toss was a couple of inches off the correct trajectory or if he sent the ball beyond the service box, he may be a future Wimbledon star, or captain of the team at Oxford, or reach another of the tennis pinnacles open to children of talent who have the advantage of devoted parents and pros and the chance to play all they want. I thought of Pierre. I have already bought, with deepest pleasure, a second racket, four centimeters longer than the previous one, for my four-year-old grandson, whose delight in hitting forehands with the cushy practice ball and whose determination are among the thrills of my life; I have nothing against privilege when we have it. But my mind flashed to thoughts of Pierre yearning just to get on the court and play, starting at age fourteen with those bare feet.

Pierre’s success in tournaments was rapid. The father of Yannick Noah, brother of Pierre’s family neighbor, was in charge of the club. Pierre became number two of the junior team, and they played all over Cameroon. The eight talented young players were sponsored by the Fédération Camerounaise de Tennis. For the first time, Pierre took a plane—to play in a tournament in Côte d’Ivoire. He got to semi-finals, a major achievement for someone whose name was new on the circuit. He played in Benin, Mali, and Burkina Faso as well. 

While Pierre began to flourish as a young tennis player, any thought of further traditional education went down the tubes. He has never continued his academic studies, or received a school diploma. Yet when he goes back to Cameroon, he encounters friends who went the traditional educational route—but today cannot get jobs of any sort worthy of them.

Meanwhile, when he was back in Yaoundé, Yannick Noah would come and give all the kids rackets, clothes and shoes. He rallied with all of them. “Il nous a beaucoup aidés,” Pierre recalls warmly. 

Pierre and one other boy were the two best players. Gilbert Kadji, the owner of a chain of brasseries as well as the breweries that made of Cameroon’s most popular beers, sponsored them for three-month internships in Paris. Then Pierre did a second one. But then Gilbert Kadji turned his sights more to football, the sport that so often takes precedence over tennis. Pierre, meanwhile, saved up enough money to return to Paris. 

He left his visa application and all the requisite papers at the consulate at Doula so he could get his visa. A week later, returned to the consulate to pick it up, only to learn that it was refused. His round-trip air ticket and deposit money made no difference; he would have to wait for three months before he consider re-applying.

A week after the miserable rejection, Pierre was staying inside on a rainy afternoon. His spirits were down, but he decided to go outside for a walk in the rain. A white woman parking her car looked oddly familiar. Then Pierre realized that she was the same person at the consulate who had told him in no uncertain turns that his visa application was turned down. She was heading into the hairdresser’s. 

Pierre could not decide whether or not to speak to her. It was one of those moments of indecision when what we determine, in a flash, can change our lives forever. “Bonsoir, Madame,” Pierre offered as she headed into the coiffeur’s. She looked at him without recognizing him, and he explained that he was Monsieur Otolo, and that she had turned down his visa. 

This lady whose name he did not know asked him a few questions, and before rushing into her appointment told him to get a letter from Gilbert Kadji and then return to the consulate. He should forget her stern advice that he not even considered returning for three months, that to reapply sooner would cost him dearly. Five days later, Pierre got his visa to go to France.

Pierre Otolo and Nick Weber in Paris | © Matthias Persson

In Paris, Pierre found meager digs in an apartment owned by a Cameroonian. At least it was near a tennis club where he could play, and he could enter tournaments in France. The neighborhood, which near the club, was nice; the living conditions miserable. His rent money only allowed him a mattress on the floor in a corridor. His landlord periodically changed the lock on the door if one of the residents had failed to pay his rent, forcing the lot of young people to stay out in the cold. He did the same if someone had failed to cover the cost of hot water he had used and that was recorded on the meter of the heater. 

Pierre, meanwhile, realized that as a young African man alone in Paris he was perpetually asked for his papers by the police. His solution worked. He went everywhere in jogging clothes, always carrying his tennis racket. Now he was perceived as an athlete, and left alone.

The time period allowed on his visa was running out. Still, he did not want to leave Paris. Regardless of not having the right papers, he stayed. Six months after arriving, he got his job at Tennis Atlantique. For nine months, he worked at the desk at the tennis club, gave lessons when he could, and played in French tournaments. The club management had him sleep in the office, on the floor, as a sort of night watchman; there were showers for the players, so he had most everything he needed. The park was technically closed at night, so he had to turn off the lights before the police did their rounds; not only should he not have been staying there, but he no longer had viable papers to be in France. But his kind boss declared him an employee regardless, and so he got his carte Vitale. The difficulties of how he was living did not bother him—“Ça ne me dérangeait pas”—and he persisted. This was 2002, the year we met after I telephoned looking for a teacher.

What has happened since has been a sequence of immense hardships, personal victories, and, better still, a time when Pierre has found the means of helping other young African tennis players—over forty of them, day and night, back in Yaoundé.

Now living in France, he has surmounted obstacles, and devotes his energy to both his family and to children whose lives he is changing. He still plays and teaches at the club in Montparnasse. A few years ago, he fell in love with one of his tennis students, Axelle Dupontreue. She has been his greatest support, and her parents, white people living in the suburbs, the most devoted of families to him. Today, Pierre and Axelle are parents of a five year old daughter and a baby boy. 

It was starting about two years ago that Pierre, on one of his trips back to Cameroon, decided to provide opportunity, through tennis, not just to children like him, but to street kids who truly had nothing. Rarely has an individual’s existence been so fraught with hurdles and obstacles as Pierre’s; rarely has someone managed so beautifully to have a life-changing impact, through tennis, on so many other people. “Dans la vie, il faut s’appliquer à ce qu’on fait,” Pierre explains matter-of-factly. He does not have a hint of sanctimoniousness. He is who he is and does what he does, and that’s that. Even as he has had to put gargantuan energy into simply surviving, it is not all about him. “Mon obligation aujourd’hui, c’est d’aider ceux qui en ont besoin.” For the past year, he has built up an amazing association not just for teaching children tennis, but for providing them with a roof over their heads and food, and emotional support.

Yes, I have had a role in this. Having started, over ten years ago, a non-profit that works in the fields of education and medical care and the improvement of everyday life in sub-Saharan Africa, we have funded a lot that Pierre does. But the money is nothing compared to the devotion and generous spirit of a man whose life would have made others bitter or furious.

On the surface, we do not appear to be the most likely of bosom buddies. But Pierre remains one of the people in the world to whom I feel most akin. And he is a model: an exemplar of the will to triumph, to overcome obstacles, to revel in the glories of life and make safety and pleasure integral to the existence of others. 

We come from different continents, were born in opposite circumstances, and, on the surface, could hardly be less alike. But from the day we met, it was clear that we shared something essential to our lifeblood. Since you are reading this magazine, you know exactly what it is. The passion for tennis as tennis—the sheer pleasures of the game—and the belief in tennis as a vehicle for human greatness. 

Pierre is built like an American football player, heavy-set without being fat. He is black; his children are half-white, but Pierre is a hundred percent native African. When we initially met, he had dreadlocks and often wore a wool stocking cap—often even on days when to me it seemed hot out. He sports brightly-colored tennis clothes that you might expect on a basketball player. It is harder for me to describe myself—except to say that I am quite bald, relatively trim, blue-eyed, with my pale skin always reddened by the sun, and inclined to wear traditional tennis whites—since I still have so many of them that remain from the places where I have played over the years and where they are requisite. Some people say I look slightly like Tom Okker, and when I had a mop of curls in the 1970s I was mistaken (off the court) for John McEnroe, but I play tennis no better than your average advanced intermediate player, addicted to the game but just never great.

When Pierre first agreed to give me those lessons back in 2002, we tried to do an hour twice a week. American pros compliment you on everything. If you miss the ball completely, they may suggest that you watch more closely, but then they assure you that your grip and swing were exactly right. If your toss hardly goes over your head, they gently allow that you should aim to make it higher, but, “Wow!,” the way you arch your back, and the fit of your Sergio Tacchini shirt, are glorious sights to behold. In places like Palm Beach and in bucolic resort hotels, you hear the pros acting as if, above all else, they are being paid to make their clients feel good about themselves.

Pierre was, from the start, gentle in manner, but he never looked quite satisfied with the way I executed his sparse but apt suggestions. I needed to hit the ball more in front of me. I had to follow through more consistently. I should speed up my footwork. If I rushed net, I had better volley with a real punch and not a swing. It was only after three months of tough training, no thought that I might be tiring during any of those intense lessons, no suggestion that I had done anything well, that he let out two words of praise. I had hit over a hundred forehands in a row over the net and within the lines on the opposite side. This garnered me a “Pas mal, Nicholas.” He said it almost taciturnly, but it was like winning a shining trophy. I remembered a moment in junior high school when I finally climbed the rope to the high gym ceiling; I became aware that the whole class had formed around the bottom, and when I practically slid down free-style, the ropes burning my legs, the gym teacher shook my hands and said “Good job.” The intellectual who always wanted to be a jock; the person who has published a fair number of books and done other things that look good on a c.v., but for whom nothing equals the sense of athletic accomplishment.

Some of us never outgrow the need for approval; Pierre’s pleasure in my new-found consistency meant the world to me. Pierre was and is a great teacher, a dedicated human being, someone who keeps his word about everything, a man with the courage of a titan and an ability to cope with difficulty and make situations that would kill most people into just another challenge he will surmount. 

Thread is a cultural center and artists's residency program located in Sinthian, a rural village in Tambacounda, the southeastern region of Senegal. | © Giovanni Hänninen / The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation

Early on, our personal connection strengthened over a sadness I well understood. One day, not so long after we met, Pierre told me that his beloved grandmother had died back in Cameroon. Here I cannot dissemble about the money factor. It became clear that Pierre, who was essentially alone in Paris, then sleeping in the office, lacked the funds either to buy an air ticket or to fund a funeral for which no one else would pay. I had a small bit of money left from my father’s estate. Dad has started life penniless, caddying thirty-six holes a day so that, as sunset approached, he could afford the greens fees to play nine himself. Dad and I had been together buying, first, my mother’s casket—she died at seventy—and, subsequently, his mother’s (she died a few years later, at ninety-four; Dad never told his own mother that Caroline, my mother, had died: “I didn’t want her to have the victory.” It seemed fitting that money from Dad should fund Pierre’s getting to a funeral in Cameroon and to giving his grandmother a casket and whatever else was needed so that she could have a decent funeral of the sort my father had funded for a wife he adored and a mother he liked far less. The point is: you take care of family.

After Pierre returned, our routine began again. I do not live in Paris all the time, but whenever I was there, and weather permitted, he gave me a lesson. He was the best sort of teacher—his words few but entirely apt—and anything he taught got reinforced with drilling, then more drilling, then more drilling. The lessons invariably ended with a set where this tournament champion could have reduced me to mincemeat but played me at just the right level so that, if I were at the top of my game, I might win some points, even a game or two, but never a set. I found myself playing better tennis than I had ever before, and enjoying it totally. Approaching the age of sixty did not have to feel like a downward slide.

Pierre, meanwhile, had a son in Cameroon. He would often return to visit Chris, and the pictures he showed me were superb. They were in touch on the telephone all the time. 

But, in 2014, when Chris reached the age of fifteen, he developed a mysterious illness. Pierre rushed to be at his son’s side in Africa, and when the doctors in Cameroon were unable to get him better, he brought him back to Paris.

Three weeks later, the boy died in France. 

This time, the grief-stricken Pierre had not only to organize and fund a funeral, but to take his son’s body back to Cameroon. It was nice to be able to relieve some of the financial burden—you cannot deny the importance of money in human relationships, which is why I mention it—but a drop in the bucket given Pierre’s suffering. 

Then, the day after Chris’s funeral, the boy’s maternal grandmother reappeared. The police were with her. They were arresting Pierre for having taken Chris out of Cameroon and ultimately been responsible for his death in France.

Pierre, as always, knew how to fend for himself—miserable as it all was. The insult and prison itself were more than most human beings could have survived. Pierre had the street smarts to bribe a prison guard to allow him to keep his mobile phone. Miraculously, he had held on the fifteen Euros as well as the phone even when he had been stripped of all other possessions. 

He was one of fifty men packed into a prison cell so tightly that they had to sleep standing. There were no toilets; all human needs had to be dealt with in public. But the cell phone enabled Pierre to call his lawyer and to call me. A flurry of action. One of Pierre’s brothers brought him a baguette, which he shared with others. By the time all those phone calls and wire transfers had succeeded in achieving our goals, and Pierre was released, he had become such a hero, uplifting the other prisoners, that they cried when he left.

A couple of years ago, on one of his return trips to Yaoundé, Chris’s grandmother arrived from her village, a substantial distance away. She explained: “I made this long trip because I heard that you were in Cameroon. I have come to ask pardon. I was badly advised.” She could hardly forgive herself not just for his ten days in prison but also for the cruelty of having accused him of being responsible for his son’s death.

 “Il n’y a pas de problème,” he assured the remorseful woman in tears. Even before she came in, just knowing she would be arriving, he had forgiven her. 

The visitor cried all the harder. Pierre simply assured her that she could always count on him. In his resolute, cheerful voice, he simply said they were still in the same family.

Life was on the up and up. But then, just two years ago, Pierre got word from Cameroon that his older brother, a soldier, and his sister, a teacher, had both been killed by Boko Haram in the north of the country. 

He rushed back to Cameroon, and ended up returning to Paris with his brother’s son, little Pierre, and his sister’s daughter, Gloria. Axelle’s splendid parents took the children in. Pierre raised money for the kids’ winter clothes and school lunches. The children were happy once they adjusted. 

The misfortune did not let up, however. Little Pierre was hit and killed by an automobile when he left school. Anguish beyond anguish. Gloria had to adjust to feeling on her own. Big Pierre developed mysterious illnesses and ended up in long-term hospitalization, at first undiagnosed. He required surgery. Since then, he has been diagnosed with diabetes, forced to lose a lot of weight, give himself constant blood tests, take a massive amount of medicine. Only a year ago, there was a time when he looked so unwell that I wondered if he would make it.

But underlying the brutal hardships, Pierre has clung to his love for his family, his passion for sport, and now the wish to provide immeasurable service. He has stuck to the diet and exercise regimes, and is now nearly as healthy and vigorous as when we first met.

“J’ai pris une décision. J’étais en vacances au Cameroun.” He saw children sleeping in the street. “Qu’est-ce qui se passe ? Pourquoi sont-ils là ?” He made a decision to do something. 

This was back in Yaoundé. Pierre started with six or seven children, homeless ones who would collect and sell empty bottles for something to eat.

“On peut toujours trouver une solution, avec moyens ou sans moyens,” Pierre explains. He introduced the children to tennis. He gave them food. He found a place where they could play tennis three times a week. Yet, while the children were happy to go play tennis and have a meal, Pierre had no idea where they spent the night, except that it was basically in the gutter.

Now the joy of tennis is taking a great leap forward in Africa. Pierre Otolo has been the inspiration. Le Korsa, an approved n.g.o. in US and France, is building a court in one of the most poverty-stricken parts of Senegal. Next to the cultural center Thread, near the field where local children play football, there will be the first tennis court in the region; the nearest to it is about 400 kilometers away. One of the first teachers there will be Pierre Otolo; another will be the septuagenarian art historian who founded Le Korsa and wrote this article. Two years ago, Pierre sent some racquets and balls to the village doctor, and boys and girls were quickly hitting first-rate groundstrokes in the parking lot of a medical center, supported by Le Korsa. Whether one of them becomes the next Yannick Noah, or simply has a new pleasure in his or her life, the marvels of the court and the joy of taut strings hitting the ball will become part of life’s experiences to people who never knew it before.

There was a man Pierre taught in Yaoundé who had a private tennis court at home. He let Pierre use the court for the kids. But then the man died, leaving the court to his son, who, after seeing that the kids had new rackets and balls, decided to charge him for their time on the court. 

Le Korsa, our organization that works in rural Africa, was able to help Pierre pay for a long term lease for the court. He persuaded the man that these were street kids. The children who sometimes walked four miles to get there were now able to play even more than the two hours every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for which Pierre had initially paid for court time. Some children even came from the countryside. 

Pierre decided that he had to find a way to take even better care of the children. He was with the kids from 8 in the morning to 7 at night. Kids became happy. They were “dans un cadre.” There were two girls who still lived at home, while the others still slept wherever they could, but everyone was welcome: “Il n’y a pas de problème.” This is always Pierre’s favorite expression: what he always says! 

Most of the children Pierre is training at tennis do not have living parents, or do not know where their parents were. For a while, times remained tough. But then, with our help, Pierre rented them living space. He put a trainer in charge of rackets and balls. He started going to Cameroon every six months. A year ago, when he was still fighting his own illnesses, Pierre told me that the kids reminded him of himself. He became strong quickly. “Le moyen: c’est moi. Ce n’est pas l’argent, c’est la volonté.” 

The children all began to make great progress. We are now completing construction of a dormitory that can house up to twenty of these homeless children who are learning tennis. Pierre is quick to point out that they don’t have to be champions of the world, but they need to develop the will to improve. When he started tennis at age fourteen, he never imagined that he would end up in France; tennis changed his life.

Forty children all in all are at his tennis academy. As usual, Pierre has had to battle to make things work, but he was up to the task. It took a lot of time, and many trips to Cameroon, to get the academy accepted as an official organization. For eight months, Pierre kept failing at his efforts to set up a requisite meeting with the authorities. After one two-month stay, he gave up; then, the day after he returned to Axelle and family life back in Paris, he got a phone call asking him to have the meeting he had been seeking for all that time in Africa. 

Pierre made the official on the other end of the telephone promise him that the meeting was on. He said to Axelle—this was before they were expecting their second child—“There is you. Our daughter. And then the association.” Two days after he arrived back in Paris, he was again on a plane to Cameroon. He had the meeting at the prefecture the following day.

Now he has people helping take care of those forty boys and girls in Yaoundé through his association “Tennis et au-delà” (tennisaudela.cf).

They all have places to stay, and square meals. When one fourteen year old girl in his care became pregnant, the father of the future child was killed in a street attack, and the staff in Yaoundé asked Pierre what to do, he replied, “Il n’y a pas de souci. Il n’y a pas de problème.” Any child in their care is like a member of the family. 

Children who walked forty kilometers at night to escape Boko Haram are now learning tennis at Pierre’s Academy. The man who started as a ball boy has now become a tennis player who hits against Yannick Noah and Nick Bollettieri; but, above all, he is someone who uses his skill and his experience, and his immense good heart, to give. 

Nothing ever makes this guy give up. Pierre Otolo lives his life the way that he rushes net. He is all there! He summons his energy where others would drop. And if once the purpose was to win a tournament match or two, now, when he is no longer garnering those trophies for himself, he is giving children not just food and shelter, but hope—through the sport that is so much more than a game.


Article publié dans COURTS n° 4, printemps 2019.