MASERU — For over 13 years, Seapei Senatla has been playing tennis.
In those years she has travelled as far afield as Algeria and Madagascar. “I have seen them all,” she giggles, sitting courtside at Lesotho’s national tennis courts, watching over the country’s next crop of players.
A stocky figure, Senatla shyly speaks to the Sunday Express fresh from another morning training session — still in her red top and white shorts.
At 23 ‘Nana, as she prefers to be known, is by no means old, but her years in the sport make her a veteran in Lesotho tennis. Indeed, Senatla is also a fulltime coach.
“There are lots of talented players we are looking at, like those boys there,” Senatla says, pointing at five not-too-spectacular looking kids clutching old racquets. It is the nature of sport in Lesotho — a pauper’s world — that fine prospects are usually under-funded or under-equipped.
The five boys being taken through their paces by Senatla’s long-time friend and playing partner, Pinky Montlha, are not what you would expect of a country’s chief hopes.
And as Senatla admits, she is one of the lucky few who are able to earn a living off their talent.
“Last year, when we went to the All-Africa Games in Algeria, we were given M11 000 each, so I was able to buy some room-dividers and things like that,” she says.
Senatla — the third born in a family of seven — lives with her mother and two siblings in a three-roomed house in Qoaling. Because of circumstances beyond her control, she found herself the breadwinner from an early age.
“There was a time when my family depended on my winnings, so when I went to tournaments, I planned that the M2 000 I would get if I won would help in a certain way,” Senatla recalls. “Most of what we have at home is a result of my tennis earnings,” she adds. “But now things have changed; my (elder) brother is now working.”
Even so, Senatla’s earnings are hardly enough for her to say she is comfortable.
“It’s not enough but it’s better than me sitting at home or just practising,” Senatla acknowledges.
“These days, people live off sport. You’ll find that professionals don’t work at all and rely on their sport. A good example is our marathon runners — they don’t work in the strict sense of the word but you see the houses they have managed to build through sport.”
Since taking up the sport in 1996, Senatla has won 16 medals and 20 trophies — both in local and International Tennis Federation (ITF) tournaments — including silver and bronze at the ITF under-16 championships in Pretoria eight years ago, making her the most decorated active, female-player in Lesotho.
In October, she lost to compatriot Nthabiseng Nqosa in the final of the Botswana Open. She also represented Lesotho at the All-Africa Games in Nigeria and Algeria in 2003 and 2008, respectively.
It is a journey that began from her days at Boitelo Primary School — just a stone’s throw away from the national tennis courts.
Tennis was not her first love; Senatla had initially wanted to play soccer because her uncle — the late Lethola Masimong — used to coach Lesotho’s national women’s team, Mehalalitoe. But when she tried her hand at tennis, Senatla was hooked.
“I went to school near the courts and every time I passed by, I was drawn to the game,” Senatla recalls.
“Every day after school, I would stand at the gate and watch people play. I ended up coming with some friends. But I’m the only one who is still playing,” she adds.
“It was difficult learning how to play but because it was something I liked, I worked hard at it. By the third week, I had played my first tournament.”
She’s happy with how things have turned out.
“There were people that I wanted to be like. And I told myself if I worked hard, I would be like them… and I ended up like them and even better,” she beams.
Those role models included Tankiso Letseka and Mamotsebang Modise, pioneers of women’s tennis in Lesotho. Senatla may have followed in their footsteps, but she has also inherited the same problems, namely lack of exposure and limited opportunities to play abroad. Lesotho has not featured in either the Davis or Fed cups since 2001 and no local player has been to any major ITF tournament.
Again, unlike her counterparts in the region, Lesotho has no players enrolled in training programmes abroad.
Senatla believes the Lesotho Lawn Tennis Association (LLTA) should be more rigorous in trying to give players the chance to go abroad.
“It affects players’ morale when someone you played with in the juniors tells you that they are now playing abroad. That is what’s happening at the moment with players from Botswana, for example,” Senatla says.
“At least,when you see someone going abroad, it gives you hope that the same might happen with you. It gives you motivation to work harder. The only person who has gone anywhere is Koleile, but that was only to Pretoria for a training camp,” she says.
“There is also lack of equipment. And as tennis gets quicker and players get bigger, there is a need to have specialised training to keep up with the rest of the world.”
Lesotho tennis has also suffered in the boardroom.
In April this year, an independent commission was set up to investigate the LLTA after years of crippling mismanagement.
The commission found rampant abuse of funds and a lack of co-operation by the association’s executive members, which rendered the LLTA useless as a governing body. The outcome of the probe precipitated the disbanding of the former LLTA board.
In July, a new committee was elected headed by former president Motlatsi Morolong.
“They (the new board) give us hope because Morolong was the president before and during those days we used to play a lot of tournaments and travel a lot,” she says.
But overall, is there a future for tennis?
“The standard is rising again. You know what brings it up? It’s sponsors and when we are able to compete in tournaments,” Senatla insists.
“When you are just playing here at home, you know that you can beat so and so but when we go out, it’s different.”
“Also, if we were to get sponsors it would make a huge difference. Right now, when I come to play I bring my own trainers, my own racquet and my own food. When the shoes are worn out, you sit at home because there is nothing that you can do. When the racquet strings are broken, you can’t play,” Senatla says. “And you can’t play hungry. If we could get sponsors, that would help us; it is not easy.”
“A person who comes here is one still at school or has some kind of a job. There is no way you can say you will make a living off your talent because at the moment, we are not given anything,” Senatla says.
“Personally, I’m happy that I’m making a living off something I love. Now, I am a player as well as being a coach; everything I have came from tennis — I work here. But it’s not the same for everybody and shouldn’t be like that,” she laments.
There is still a longing to, one day, share the stage with her role models — American superstar sisters, Serena and Venus Williams.
“I watched them when I was young and I still want to be like them today. I’m still improving — all I can do is keep working hard,” Senatla says.