01 Mar 2018

Inside the ITF Regional Training Centre in Casablanca

News Article

By  Tom Moran

“I want to be like Rafa, of course,” 13-year-old Moroccan Mehdi Benchakroun grins, when asked what he wants to achieve in his career. “But,” he adds after a pause, “I also want to be like myself.”

The words are simple and his manner is casual, but there is a confidence and self-assuredness in his voice that makes the latter half of his answer seem quite deep – philosophical, even. Plainly this is no ordinary 13-year-old.

Throughout our chat, which takes place courtside in Casablanca as Mehdi’s peers from the ITF/CAT High Performance Tennis Centre do drills on the clay courts of one of the city’s premier clubs, the teenager from Rabat mentions the importance of studying, his thoughts about university, and ponders what would constitute a good career – “Top 50, Top 100 maybe”.

Such level-headedness turns out not to be limited to just one of the Centre’s players.

“It’s very important to get a good education next to the tennis. Then to have your graduation and finish your studies,” Tunisia’s Mohamed Ali Bellalouna, the boys’ singles champion at the 2017 African Junior Closed Championships, tells me.

“We’re not just learning about tennis or studying,” Morocco’s second-highest ranked girl, Oumaima Aziz, opines. “We have to learn about respecting ourselves.”

Their answers to my questions will no doubt have pleased their coaches and tutors, all of whom placed a high importance on the Centre’s ability to produce balanced and well-rounded individuals – not just talented tennis players.

Opened in 2013, the Centre is a joint venture between the ITF, the Confederation of African Tennis (CAT) and the Fédération Royale Marocaine de Tennis (FRMT). As of late 2017, there were more than 20 nationalities represented among the 30 or so players who attend the Centre.

“The purpose of the Centre is to have the top African players in the same place, same environment,” the Centre’s director, Amine Ben Makhlouf, said. “Sharing the same dream, the same goal of being a pro. We have no limit for any player.”

The Casablanca Centre – along with the ITF's other Regional Training Centres in Nairobi, Kenya and Lautoka, Fiji – is a key pillar of the ITF’s Development strategy. They enable talented players from countries whose federations may not have the means to support them to take the first steps on the pathway to becoming a professional.

“Having a training centre in a region is really the hub of activity,” explained Dermot Sweeney, who is the ITF’s Technical Director for Training Centres and Players and who was visiting the Centre late last year to spend time with the coaches and players. “Having a centre in Casablanca, for example, really attracts a lot of activities in the region. West Africa and other parts of Africa come together and make a hub in order to develop tennis throughout the region.”

Success stories from the Centres abound. The two highest-ranked girls from the Casablanca Centre – 17-year-old Moroccan Diae El Jardi and 16-year-old Sada Nahimana, of Burundi – have already competed at junior Grand Slam level, while many of the other players have represented their nations at the World Junior Tennis, Junior Davis Cup or Junior Fed Cup Finals.

“Ideally we would obviously like them to compete at the Grand Slam senior level. That is the dream goal of the Centre,” Sweeney continued. “The short term [goal], like Casablanca has been able to do over the last few years, is for the players to compete in junior Grand Slams.”

But as with all promising junior players, there are no guarantees. Sometimes even the most-talented juniors fail to break through and establish themselves in the professional game.

And it’s for this reason that the other, off-court values espoused by the Centre and its staff – and so readily picked up by all the players I spoke to – are crucial.

“Our approach is a holistic approach,” Sweeney said. “It is not that tennis is more important than schooling, or that schooling is more important than tennis. We really try to have well-rounded individuals.”

“We are like a family,” explained Eliakim Wilfried Coulibaly, a 15-year-old from Cote d’Ivoire. “The teachers, the coaches, they are so nice with everyone. When you need help, they help you.”

Perhaps among the Centre’s attendees there are some future stars who will go on to make their mark on tennis. But even if not, the Centre’s staff can be confident that they are imparting lessons and values that will help their charges throughout their lives – both on and off the court.