The coach is on a mission: he wants to diversify the sport of tennis

Jul 5, 2024 | News

Tennis coach Arum Akom is a champion of change and a passionate tennis player.

Arum Akom takes a breather when he is sitting in the players box at Wimbledon, watching one of his athletes on Centre Court. Arum Akom, a 25-year-old tennis trainer, will be on the court at The Butterfly Tennis Club, in Camberwell, South London, until that day. He runs a bursary program for local children and coaches juniors who want to go pro.

Tennis is experiencing a global boom post-pandemic, and the sport is changing. It was once perceived as a middle-class and white sport. The number of people who play tennis is increasing. In the US, it increased by 33% between 2019 and 2022. Black players also increased by 46%.

A recent report by the Lawn Tennis Association in the UK shows that tennis is one of the most gender-balanced of sports, with 40% of its players being female. Despite this, only 24% are women who are accredited coaches. In the same way, 16% of players come from diverse ethnic backgrounds, but only 4% are coaches and 3% are officials.

Akom wants to correct the imbalance. He knows the obstacles that black players and those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds face. In telling his story, he focuses on the good fortune of growing up, sports-mad, two minutes away from Burgess Park Tennis courts, which is home to one country’s largest and most ambitious community programs. He tells Positive News that he was “one of those children” who wanted to play tennis regularly. “I was lucky to be at Burgess Park, where they offered free or discounted tennis during most of my career .”

Akom was chosen by the Butterfly Tennis Club in 2020 to represent the diversity of the on-court community. He was not only selected for his stellar CV, which included a sports scholarship at the University of Roehampton and an MSc degree in Sports Management from the University of East London. He also had LTA coaching qualifications Levels 1, 2, and 3 (which he obtained while completing his A-levels), but also for his real-life experience.

Arum Akom and a group of young tennis hopefuls

His first step was to create a bursary program to provide free tennis for children of lower socio-economic backgrounds after school and during the school holidays. Tennis is expensive. Lessons, rackets and restrings, shoes, balls, court fees, and travel costs quickly add up. Financial support is provided by memberships, fundraising and organizations such as Sport England, the LTA and Head Sportswear. Akom has rejected big-name apparel deals and partnered with footballer Reece Placid’s brand Believe & Achieve. The brand’s message aligns with Akom’s personal platform Project AA (“Accomplish Any”) His work in 2023 earned him the title of “Game Changer for the Community” at the first Tennis Black List Awards.

Akom, did you ever want to become a pro? “Never. I think it’s because from a young I understood the barriers I had to overcome. Tennis was just a social sport for me. I knew that and I was content with that.

He is ambitious, however, and dedicates two hours of his time a day, every day, for five days a weeks, to coaching his eight-year old protege Nazrah. He puts into practice what he learned from his mentor, Barry Bartley who began his career with Akom when he was 16. This knowledge transfer is called a “conveyor” by the Akom team. Together, they are getting closer to the end goal.

Akom says, “It is time to produce champions in the UK from diverse ethnic backgrounds.” “It’s not been done, and it needs to happen.” It’s for this reason that I work with players like Nazrah. We want to show that we are capable of producing and help our own.

Thanks to the “Venus and Serena Effect”, and new talent such as Ben Shelton, Frances Tiafoe and US Number One Coco Gauff, the US is further ahead.

Akom mentions The Black Girls Tennis Club as well as the Washington Tennis Education Foundation. He believes that representation is crucial. When he takes a modelling job, he literally changes the face of tennis. He has worked with Fila and Lacoste.

It’s time to produce champions in the UK from ethnically diverse backgrounds. It hasn’t happened yet and it must be done

He says that Nazrah’s mother and he have become like family. They both have east African roots. Akom’s family hails from Uganda, while Nazrah is Ethiopian. “We have a bond that goes beyond tennis courts. Akom took the group to Wimbledon last year, waking up at 5am in order to join the famous line. Imagine that: the mother coming from Ethiopia only hearing Wimbledon on radio as a child, always dreaming of going .”

He insists that it is important to see other people who are like you. Akom recently delivered Prime Video LTA Youth Girls Sessions at the club, and saw an immediate uptake in playing by girls. Black Tennis Mentors has also had a successful start. The company, which was co-founded by Jabilayh Asante and is based in north London, is working with Asante to create a new Black, Afro-Caribbean and Caribbean tennis society.

“I don’t yet know where I would like Black Tennis Mentors go. “I don’t know because it’s so big and involves other people,” says he. “It is not what Arum wants, it is what everyone wants.” It all starts in the community.

Main image: Arun Akom

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