Six years ago, in Dakar, Senegal, Pape Diaby, a Senegalese tennis coach, pointed out 15-year-old Salif Kante playing tennis and confidently told me that Salif could compete in America. This week, at the national junior college championships, Salif proved Pape right. Not only did he compete, but he won the tournament -- both in singles and doubles.
Salif's game has changed since I last watched him play, two years ago in Dakar. Then, at 6'2", he used his height and strength to battle at the baseline, competing against strong African and European players (who would come to Senegal to try to win professional points in a few Futures tournaments). His coach at Georgia Perimeter, Reda Omar (pictured between the two players), expanded Salif's game to include more slice, an aggressive and quick charge to the net, and a spinning kick serve. Salif also grew 2 inches and can jump like a basketball player, so that most players cannot get a lob over him. (I overheard players from other teams affectionately dubbing him "Stretch".)
This week, I saw it in action. Players at the national tournament can compete. Teams must earn a berth to the national tournament hosts by winning at regionals. A huge number of international players fill the ranks -- from France, Brazil, Namibia, Venezuela, Iran, Morocco, and Australia. (We cheered in French.) Many of the players had elite tennis training, in academies in their home countries or in the U.S. And they can hit!
Salif was ranked second in singles, and he and his teammate Ismail Lemtouni, from Morroco (pictured above), were ranked first. But at this level, nothing could be taken for granted.
Salif's toughest match was in the semi-finals against a French left-handed player from Vincennes University in Indiana. In the first set, Salif absolutely dominated, winning 6-1, but in the second set, competition set in. Watching this set was witnessing strategy at its apex: the players would spin and cut and cross court and whisk the ball down the line and then whack it to the baseline. A point lasted minutes, only for another equally intense point. Salif won 7-5. Then on Friday, in the finals, he played a hard-hitting Brazilian from Laredo Community College who retired at 1-5, with ankle problems. This made the final victory a bit of a let down, but it was a huge win, and he is the National Champion in singles.
Doubles was intense. In the finals, Salif and Ismail faced two Aussies from Collin County Community College (the host of the tournament). One of the players had a hard fast serve that they initially had trouble returning, and they fell quickly 6-2 and were down in the second set 1-3, but then they began to fight and got up 5-3. Sometime in this match, it began to rain, and we all ran for shelter and waited an hour or more for the courts to dry. Eventually, on dry courts, Collin retaliated, and the game was tied 5-5 and then 6-6. In the tiebreaker, each point was a nail biter, knowing that a break of the service could mean that all was over. Eventually, Salif and Ismail triumped 10-8.
In the third set, the players held their serves, and the count was 2-1 for us, when the gray skies opened up again. This time, we moved to indoor courts about 40 minutes away. The team bus wasn't there, so we put the players in our car, and, in huge Dallas thunderstorms, drove across town, following a coach from New Jersey, arriving at Bent Tree Country Club, just in time. Then, everything changed. Quickly and handily, Salif and Ismail won 6-2.
National Champions in singles and doubles!!!
Not only did I get to watch this victory, but my 80-year-old dad, Paul Johnson (picutred) came each day to cheer him on. He has been emailing Salif regularly, so it was special for them to finally meet. And a former student from Dakar, Veronica Ntare, flew in to surprise Salif and cheer for him. We hung out with the team from Georgia Perimeter, a group of polite and thoughtful young men, who took us under their wing and explained various tennis strategies as we cheered together.
It is hard not to boast of the American dream come true. Salif came to Atlanta, worked hard, made good grades, and grabbed the gold ring. Already, I knew what a disciplined, dedicated and strong person he is, but to have coaches from other schools describe how respectful and kind he is filled me with joy. To watch him compliment other players on a good shot, open the door for my dad, encourage players from other schools, and cheer for his team members just confirmed what I already knew. Very few people have both elite athletic ability and character -- Salif does. Now he moves to Florida A&M for phase two of his American adventure in Division I, where he will play for a wonderful coach, Dr. Carl Goodman.
Congratulations to Salif, Ismail, Coach Reda and Georgia Perimeter. What a wonderful trip it has been.