23 years ago, an eight-year-old Tapiwa Marobela picked up a tennis racquet for the very first time.
Much has changed since that fateful day on a humid, cloudy afternoon at Lobatse Tennis Club, including marriage, children and a life spent globetrotting across the world.
One thing that has remained constant however, is her passion for the sport she fell in love with all those years ago.
Her days as a player recently having come to an end, the 31-year-old mother of two is now a sports administrator contracted by International Tennis Federation (ITF).
“I am the Development Officer for Southern Africa overseeing the development of tennis in 12 countries from its growth in terms of participation, development of facilities, programming, which includes both high performance and grassroots coaching,” Masunga, who changed her surname from Marobela when she married, tells Voice Woman proudly.
Casting her mind back to where it all began, she explains that her love for tennis stems from her parents, who were both keen players.
“My parents were social players at the Lobatse Tennis Club, which had a thriving tennis scene. I used to pick up their balls when they were on court – that’s how I was introduced to the sport. I was hooked!”
Masunga soon started taking lessons at Notwane Tennis Club, where she spent many happy hours.
“My parents used to drop me off at the club after school and during school holidays. I would spend most days at the courts participating in training camps. Sometimes I would use the wall to play when there was no one to play with,” reminisces Masunga, a twinkle in her eye as she remembers those carefree early days.
Whilst she praises her parents with fuelling her passion for tennis, Masunga reveals it was watching the Williams sisters – Venus and Serena – on television that really inspired her.
“I was fascinated by their prowess and winning streak. It was also a huge drive that young black women could attain so much and they became instant role models to me and many more,” she says, adding both her and her younger sister would then go out and try and emulate their heroes on court.
It is no surprise then, that a few years later Masunga’s addiction paid off.
“I was awarded a scholarship to study at Florida State University (FSU) in the US and play tennis for the school in the NCAA Division 1 League in 2004 after being recruited by the coach.”
Masunga had attracted attention from numerous coaches, including the FSU coach, after watching her play during the US International Junior Tour events in December 2003 (Orange Bowl, Eddie Herr and Prince Cup).
The tournament brings together the best junior players in the world and is used by US College Tennis affiliates as a platform to recruit international players.
“At the time I was ranked in the top 100 of the ITF Juniors World Rankings.
“There was interest from FSU, Clemson, Tennessee, Cal-Berkeley, but after going on a recruiting trip to FSU to get a feel of what the school offered I signed the agreement to attend FSU.”
Although she had been to the States before to play tournaments, Masunga admits it was difficult adjusting to life in the West.
“Although I had been living away from home since 13, I still had adult supervision. However, I soon discovered that I had to do some growing up fast as most of my counterparts were slightly older. I was 17 at the time.”
In addition, Masunga was confronted by a daunting new cultural dynamic she had never experienced before.
“I was the only black player on the tennis team and people would often be surprised as they assumed I was either on the athletics or basketball teams. It made me conscious of myself but I did get the opportunity to explore what I wanted to do as a career and studied sports management.”
Despite successfully completing her studies, the tennis star struggled to find employment after graduation, a problem that was compounded by not being an American citizen.
Undeterred by repeated rejections, a resolute Masunga continued to apply for work, finally landing a three-month stint with an NFL/NBA sports agent in Atlanta as an administrative intern.
“This was my first dive into the sports profession and I helped to organise a charity golf weekend in Orlando for an agent’s client.
“He was a very tough boss, who expected a lot out of an intern. So I had a lot more responsibilities than I expected from being in my first job out of school. It was a very good learning experience on the business side of sport,” she explains, adding that another job soon followed.
“I then landed a one-year internship with the Intercollegiate Tennis Association (ITA) – responsible for administering College Tennis in the US – as mainly an events and championships intern. This was a small office of six people, which allowed me to get a wide range of experience across the organisation and not just the department I worked in,” she explains, adding the posting helped cement her skills away from the court.
Apart from her work at ITF, Masunga has previously coached full time at the Botswana Tennis Association (BTA) as well as working with various sporting codes at the Botswana National Olympic Committee (BNOC).
Masunga is elated that her current position allows her to guide young careers and contribute to the development of tennis, both locally and regionally.
“Tennis is perceived as ‘expensive’ but this couldn’t be further from the truth. I strongly feel the need to ensure information on the sport, as well as available opportunities, should be accessed by many. It could certainly open doors for many, as it did for me!
“However, it takes a collective effort, hence the need to increase participation and to get families invested in their children’s careers. In the US for instance, parents encourage their children to participate in all sports and not just tennis, with the goal of them attaining a scholarship to University. It lifts the financial burden for many and ensures they get an education while building on lucrative sports careers. In the US alone, there are over 100 Universities that not only offer scholarships for tennis players but also for other sports disciplines. We could promote such in our own schools and clubs,” she insists with a mixture of optimism and wistfulness.
Away from her day job, Masunga admits to having a ‘super husband’ who makes it possible for her to juggle work commitments and home life.
“Our relationship is a partnership and he helps out a lot with the kids. I have accepted that I am not a perfect mom and can only do my best. Though I travel extensively, I make it a priority to spend time with my family.”
Masunga concludes with some simple but poignant advice.
“Never think an opportunity comes twice; when it comes around take it! Also failure is part of growth so embrace it and keep moving.”