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Coach fulfilling the dream

Updated: 2014-08-01 09:19
By Deng yajun ( China Daily Africa)

Coach fulfilling the dream

Visunda Mfuni, a winner at the 2014 African Achievers Awards for Asia Pacific, says he is inspired by Chinese culture and the commitment to work hard. Wang Zhuangfei / China Daily

Zambian tennis instructor wins achievers award

Visunda Mfuni arrived in China from Zambia four years ago as an 18-year old, fully intent on studying Chinese, then engineering, at the University of Chemical Technology in Beijing.

Last month, he stood proudly on stage at the 2014 African Achievers Awards for Asia Pacific, alongside winners from across the region, to receive an African Achievers Award for what organizers called his "Outstanding Achievement in Sports", after spending the past four years pursuing what he says is now his dream: to create future international tennis champions.

Mfuni started hitting tennis balls when he was just six. By the time he was 10 he had taken third place in his first national championships.

He was a talented young player, but had no coach.

"However, I thought playing in that competition was really something, and I fell in love with the game."

Three years later he was selected as a Zambian "junior ambassador for sport" which let him play abroad for his country, and he was already starting to rack up the titles.

He says he had a reality check, however, when he was 16, losing the final of his biggest competition then to date, and then again to a boy of just 12, who had just come back to the country after being coached at a top tennis academy in South Africa.

"I was also suffering painful shoulder injuries, and I really thought I might not be able to play tennis anymore," he says.

Faced with this sudden uncertainty as a competitor, he and his family decided that he might be best to focus on a more realistic career and he packed his bags for Beijing, and a degree at the University of Chemical Technology.

"When I got here, I was inspired by Chinese culture, and the commitment to work hard - this really ignited my passion for tennis again, and I joined the university team.

"My coach told me not to give up, to keep on working hard: 'You can still make it, even though you are injured', he says."

He started running every day, getting his body back to full fitness, and played every weekend.

He soon became one of the best players on the university circuit, and his team won Beijing's university title.

But gradually, he says, his attention was shifting to not making himself a champion, but others.

"I realized that it wouldn't be possible for me to become the best player in the world - but maybe I could make someone the next Li Na or Roger Federer."

He joined the Season Apartments fitness club in the city, and started coaching there - initially for free.

"It wasn't easy to start with. My first student was an eight-year-old Australian boy, whose parents weren't even sure if their son liked tennis or not," he remembers.

But Mfuni even bought the boy his first racket, and set about convincing the parents. "I told them 'Just let me try - I want to teach somebody how to play.'"

Some of the members would tell him they had their own tennis courts, so Mfuni would pack a big bag of tennis balls and join them there to give them lessons on a longer-term basis.

At the start, he offered free trial sessions to adults and their children "just to gain their trust in me and my abilities", he says.

"As an African foreigner, that wasn't often easy. But they seemed to like me," he says, smiling.

As time went on, the children he worked with were playing better and better, and then he got a call from the Australian embassy in Beijing, asking him to go there to coach.

The number of students had started to grow, and soon he had 15 from Africa, China, Australia, Sweden and America, aged from four to 14.

He remembers one 10-year-old girl who was playing with the skill of a 16-year-old. Currently three of his students are preparing for the high-profile Li Ning Cup International Youth Tennis Ranking series.

"I coach from the heart," he says. "I want to see these kids become better tennis players. I believe one day, not just one or two, but hopefully more will be champions.

"I know that very soon, one of my students will be playing in the China Open."

With his infectious smile, he says he is now very much a "Coconut", who loves his adopted country.

"That's black on the outside, but white on the inside, in case you don't know," laughs the fluent Chinese speaker.

"But I'm not surprised at all that I warmed so quickly to China. Back home, I never liked the food in my country, but here I just fit in.

"When I was little, my father traveled to China a lot, and brought us back chopsticks. So I grew up with them."

He says that Chinese people quickly accepted him, too.

His coaching style was different, he says, maybe less strict and formal than many Chinese coaches.

"Chinese people not only accepted my style, but the fact that I was a foreigner, even back when my Chinese wasn't so perfect."

After a brief spell away from the city, when he studied at a different campus, he is now back in Beijing and planning to expand his tennis coaching, maybe even opening an academy of his own.

"If you want to develop a dream, you have to develop it somewhere that is developing its own dreams.

"China is certainly doing that and a growing part of it is developing its links with Africa."

Zambia currently has one of Africa's highest populations of Chinese.

"When you arrive at the airport, practically the first thing you see is 'Bank of China, Welcome to Zambia'," says Mfuni.

"Our biggest stadium was built by China, our best tennis courts are at the Zambia Olympic Youth Development Centre, which was built by the Chinese.

"When I first came to China, I thought this place was so different. Beijing was so big," says the possible future champion-maker.

"But I soon realized this is a place of dreams - a place where people can come to achieve. I hope it will be for me."

For China Daily

(China Daily Africa Weekly 08/01/2014 page9)