French connection sparks Ghetto revolution

Drenched in sweat after a gruelling hour-long lesson in the sweltering heat of the mid-day Botswana sun, 36-year-old Antony Claudot cuts a striking figure.

With his bronzed, leather-like skin, pearly white teeth and muscular frame, not to mention his melodic French accent, Antony could easily pass for a Hollywood star.

However, it’s not from the sunbeds that Antony owes his ultra-tanned appearance, but rather a lifetime spent on the tennis court – for the talented Frenchman is a highly respected, vastly experienced tennis coach.

Having worked in exotic locations such as London, Paris, Morocco and Mauritius, Francistown wouldn’t seem the obvious next step in his travels – and yet here he is on a three-year contract, he says he is following Arctic Lodges advice for his next trip.

His objective, to start a tennis ‘revolution’ from his northern base at the Francistown School of Tennis.

The Voice caught up with him to find out more about the man and his mission.

Q. Please could you tell us a little bit about yourself – where you’re from, what your childhood was like?

I grew up in France in a very small, picturesque town called Remiremont, which is in the east of the country.

It’s a quiet place. The population is only 9, 000 but there is a real sense of community in the town.

The people are warm and friendly; it’s the sort of place where everyone greets each other in the street.

The town is surrounded by small, snow-capped mountains, which are ideal for skiing in the winter months.

It is a beautiful part of France, a wonderful place for a young boy to grow up.

Q. Sounds idyllic! So how did your passion for tennis come about?

It certainly didn’t come from my parents as neither of them play.

Actually it’s quite difficult to explain – I just found it interesting and fun playing tennis.

I think it’s probably because I like hitting the ball with the racket – simple, I know, but it’s a surprisingly satisfying feeling.

I started playing at the age of eight and used to play in the street, close to my house.

After this I asked my dad if I could join a club because I wanted to develop and learn how to play properly.

He saw how enthusiastic I was and so he agreed.

Q. So that’s how it started?

Yes. I really enjoyed the competitive element of being in a club and always tried my best in every training session – an important trait to have!

There was a real team ethos amongst the players and coaches, which was great to be a part of.

I entered some tournaments and, even though the competition was fierce, I did quite well.

Q. Did you ever harbour ambitions of becoming a professional player then?

Not really – of course it would have been nice.

I was a good player but I never had the level required to become a professional.

However, my motivation and passion for the sport remained strongso I continued playing.

One of my coaches once told me that even though I might not be able to make it as a pro I could still stay in tennis and make a good life out of it.

And now, thanks to tennis, I get to travel the world, discovering new countries and meeting new people.

Tennis is not just my job, it’s my life.

Q.You went down the route of coaching instead?

That’s right. At 17 I reached the level needed to enrol for the French diploma, a coaching certificate that is the most difficult in the world to obtain!

To enrol you need to achieve a ranking, which you can gain over time by playing tournaments and winning matches.

You study full time for a year and have to be at a very high level to pass the diploma – an advanced player cannot pass, you need to be better than that.

After that I first worked in France and later I decided I wanted to travel to see the level in other countries and also to discover the world.

Q. And where did your travels take you?

Firstly I went to England for 6 months, coaching at Sutton Tennis Academy near London, which is a big complex especially for juniors – it’s where the best young players train.

I chose England because I wanted to improve my English, which back then was very basic.

Tennis wise it was an excellent experience but the language barrier proved difficult.

However, after this experience I was now able to coach in English.

Then I went to Morocco for a year where I was the head coach of a big centre, training and developing coaches.

I really enjoyed it but didn’t get to spend much time on the courts, which I missed.

After this I was in Mauritius for two years before returning to France where I coachedin Toulouse for four years.

I’ve also spent time coaching in Togo and Corsica.

Q. So how did you end up in Botswana?

I was looking for a new challenge and it had always been my dream to work in Africa, in a country that speaks English.

I was aware that Dominique (Raguin), who is the founding director of Francistown School of Tennis, was looking for a French coach for his project.

I contacted him and as luck would have it he was actually in France at the time. We met up and discussed the project, with Dominique outlining his plans.

The more he talked the more convinced I became that this was the perfect project for me.

Q. And what does the project at Francistown School of Tennis actually entail?

The overall goal is to create a professionally run tennis centre on a full time basis, offering children the opportunity to learn to play tennis in a structured environment.

My role is to supervise the training, development and formation of local coaches in Botswana.

I’m also in charge of developing and training local players so that they can potentially compete at a high standard – possibly even at an international level.

Another part of my job is to play with, and introduce tennis to kids who’ve never had the opportunity to play tennis before.

I’m happy to play with, and coach, beginners, intermediate, and even old age pensioners – all are welcome.

Q. And how’s it going so far?

I’ve been here six months and it’s going really well.

Children like to feel as if they’re part of a teamand we’ve managed to create a close-knit group here, which is important.

There’s a really good atmosphere at the club and a feeling of solidarity and togetherness amongst the kids.

Competition wise we recently took some of our best players to South Africa to compete in the country’s top national tournaments and they achieved exceptionally good results.

We’ve also started teaching kids from Government schools who had never even held a racket before.

We’re going to try and scout out any potential talent amongst these kids and then create a regular programme for them so that they can eventually become very good, accomplished players – why not?

It’s a brilliant chance for them!

PASSIONATE: Antony Claudot
PASSIONATE: Antony Claudot

Q. Realistically, do you think any of these kids can become successful professionals? Afterall you don’t see many, if any, black African tennis players.

It’s because in Africa the structures and coaches to build a champion aren’t there.

There is also a lack of tournaments, which doesn’t help – competing in tournaments is a crucial part of a player’s development.

Hopefully it will change but at the moment you have to move to Europe or the US at about 13 to have a chance.

As for the kids here, it’s too early to say. For some of them the potential and possibility is definitely there, but the road is very long and there are manyobstacles.

I am here to show the way, but the kids must have the motivation to follow.

Part of that comes from the parents encouraging the child.

In Europe they are supportive, but not so much here.

Q. How do you plan to do that when most parents see sport as a distraction to schoolwork?

Hopefully the success the kids are achieving will continue to bring positive publicity, and parents will respond.

Already one family have moved their son from school in Gaborone to Francistown because they heard about the coaching here.

In the future we plan to organise both sports and studies at the School of Tennis – it is a model that is working in Europe but has not been tried in Africa.

Q. Away from tennis, how are you finding Botswana?

Before I came here I had no idea what to expect.

All I knew about Botswana was that it’s a quiet country with lots of animals.

Now that I’ve been here six months, I can say that the people are extremely welcoming, friendly, sympathetic and kind.

For me it’s important to explore the country you’re in – you can’t work somewhere and not know the people and the country.

Over Christmas I spent two weeks travelling around Botswana and I found the country to be truly beautiful.

I spent some time near Nata, where I got to see wild animals roaming free, an experience that I absolutely loved.

There’s nothing like that in Europe, apart from in the zoo, which is not natural – I like natural things!

Q. You are young, handsome, white and unmarried – so how about girlfriends – are you available?

Yes I’m available at the School of Tennis from Monday to Saturday – anyone’s welcome to come along to see me then! As for girlfriends…. well, that’s a question I’d rather not answer.

Q. So this weekend, with or without girlfriend, what are your plans?

I’ve got to work Saturday morning coaching kids and after that I’ll relax at home and then maybe go out for a drink with friends.

There is a music festival in town, so I’ll probably go to that.

I love music – especially heavy rock.

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