The inside story of the GSPDP/ITF Touring Team in Australia | ITF

The inside story of the GSPDP/ITF Touring Team in Australia

Ross McLean

02 Feb 2022

It was a tour like no other. While all was to end well – very well, in fact – the Grand Slam Player Development Programme/ITF Touring Team’s trip to Australia was far from plain sailing, particularly in its early stages.

Just as the team’s players and coaches were preparing to board a plane to Melbourne, a new strain of the Covid-19 virus – Omicron – began to surge around the world and had nations on amber alert.

Such uncertainty gave rise to mounting and ever-changing travel restrictions, while obtaining the requisite visas for the eight players selected to represent the team was far from straightforward.   

One by one, however, the logistical headaches cleared and when Paraguay’s Daniel Vallejo and Angella Okutoyi of Kenya were making history under the Grand Slam spotlight, all such stresses and strains were quickly forgotten.

Vallejo and Okutoyi were spellbinding during the Australian Open Junior Championships and delivered some fabulous storylines which grabbed headlines and captured imaginations. But more about this intrepid duo later.

At this juncture, it is worth revisiting the premise of the tour. Each year a group of talented junior players from developing tennis nations are invited to join GSPDP/ITF Touring Teams, which are financed through the Grand Slam Player Development Programme.

Those players then travel as part of a team, have access to GSPDP coaches and gain exposure to higher level events than would otherwise be the case. It is a key development initiative and opens doors for aspiring players.

Selected to participate on the 2022 tour to Australia were: Ignacio Buse (PER), Daniel Vallejo (PAR), Kalin Ivanovski (MKD), Lautaro Midon Ballesteros (ARG), Aysegul Mert (TUR), Solana Sierra (ARG), Laura Hietaranta (FIN) and Angella Okutoyi (KEN).

Now back to Vallejo and those hurdles which needed to be cleared. No sooner had the team touched down in Melbourne than the 17-year-old Paraguayan returned a positive PCR test, meaning he was forced to isolate.

As the rest of the team headed to Traralgon for the traditional Australian Open warm-up event, Vallejo was forced to stay behind with little more than an exercise bike for company.

Boys’ coach Greg Jones also remained in Melbourne but kept his distance, while Gary Purcell, the ITF’s Development Officer for Pacific Oceania, gave much-needed support, as he did throughout the trip.

Traralgon proved an invaluable preparatory tournament for the maiden Grand Slam of the year as players honed their skills at the Grade 1 event, although it was there that Finland’s Hietaranta became the second player to test positive.

“There were some tough moments on this tour and a lot of room service,” Roberta Burzagli, the touring team’s lead coach, told

“It was a different tour than normal, I have to say, as we would usually look to really get together and exchange information about the cultures of players. That wasn’t possible although we did try to maintain the team dynamic.

“There were a lot of hassles and it wasn’t an easy tour. It started badly but ended well with Dani having such good results.”

Enough teasers. For those who are unaware, Vallejo became the first Paraguayan boy to contest a Junior Grand Slam singles semi-final and the first player from Paraguay to do so since Larissa Schaerer in 1992.

Unfortunately, the semi-finals were as far as his Australian Open singles adventure went as he succumbed to eventual boys’ champion Bruno Kuzuhara of the United States, while there was further agony in the doubles.

Vallejo and his partner Alex Michelsen progressed to the final only for Kuzuhara and Coleman Wong of Hong Kong to prevail. With the dust settled, however, Vallejo achieved much and ought to be hugely satisfied.  

“I am really proud of him,” said Burzagli. “After being isolated for seven days without touching a racket, he did a great job.

“When he tested positive, I was really sad because he had a good result at the Orange Bowl [in December, where he defeated Kuzuhara in the singles final] and I know how hard he trained before Australia.

“When he was in isolation, I was in touch with him and he was exercising. He had no symptoms so was able to train physically, with access to a bike and weights. He had a rough time but used that time well, got stronger and the results came.

“Coming from Paraguay, they struggle with getting resources for him. He was with us on our European tour last year and it is really nice to see him have success and such good results with the team.

“He is very professional, his attitude is very good and he is really focussed. He knows what he wants, and he represented his country really well.”

Vallejo, meanwhile, was keen to acknowledge the role the Touring Team has played in his progression, suggesting without such support he would have been denied the opportunity to even be at the Australian Open, let alone make history.

“It is an honour to be nominated with the team,” Vallejo told “They [Roberta and Greg] look after you and take care of you. It is like they are your mum and dad.

“It was an honour to be in Australia with them. I am from South America and going to Australia is very far, so the Touring Team helped me a lot. If I wasn’t part of this team, I would not have been there.

“For sure, I wanted to be a part of this team. It is my second time on the team and hopefully there can be a third.”

Another to make history was Okutoyi, who became the first Kenyan girl to record a Junior Grand Slam match-win, while she was the first since 1978 to even compete at a major.

By reaching the third round, Okutoyi equalled the previous best result of a Kenyan junior at a Grand Slam after Christian Vitulli advanced to the third round at the US Open Junior Tennis Championships in 2005.

“We had a very good result with Angella,” added Burzagli. “She really used the week at Traralgon to raise her game.

“For those who lost their first and second round matches at Traralgon, there was a consolation tournament and Angella used those extra matches to up her level.

“Angella is a star in Kenya now and it looks as though she will get to meet the President. She has become very famous for what she has achieved. She did great and exceeded the expectations we had for her.”

Okutoyi’s stock has risen exponentially, with the teenager receiving a host of congratulatory messages from Kenyan sporting icons and stars of stage and screen, including Oscar-winning actress Lupita Nyong’o.

She received a hero’s welcome on her return to Nairobi, with the jubilant scenes beginning immediately as the 18-year-old – Okutoyi celebrated her birthday on Saturday – landed at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport.

“To those that made it possible for me to be a part of the Touring Team, I just want to say thank you,” Okutoyi told

“I feel proud that I have been able to meet new people and practice with them. Some of these players have played Grand Slams previously and it has given me motivation. I am really happy to have been a member of this team.

“Being in the team means you are an ambassador. You have to be professional and disciplined and have a great attitude. I feel we all did that, and all tried to represent those who enabled us to be here.”

While important of course, on-court results are not the sole barometer of success, with the team environment playing a significant role in raising standards and fuelling the rate of player development.

The communal dynamic ensures the fostering of a collective spirit, and the likes of Buse and Midon Ballesteros consistently showed their support for Vallejo as he advanced to the business end of the boys’ draws.

But the Touring Team is also a mechanism for a player’s personality and character to grow and evolve, while the group will naturally bond. Each team has its nuances and Burzagli is only too happy to give a little insight into the class of 2022.  

“The boys from South America like to dress very well,” she said.

“They like to dress as though they’re going to a club. They say in Spanish that they are ‘fachero’, which means ‘good-looking'. They always say, ‘very fachero!’. We couldn’t do it that often, but when we went to a restaurant, they would dress very well.

“The girls, they like to impersonate the British and emphasise the word ‘actually’. It started on the tour to the US Open, continued to the Orange Bowl and was still going in Australia. Now the whole team do it. It is very funny.”

The start of the Australia tour was no joke, but those who laugh last, laugh longest. Looking back, Australia was yet another successful trip for the Touring Team, on and off court. Next stop, Europe!

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