by Irene Galea
Mutchmor Public School students sprang to and fro on squeaky running shoes on one side of the gymnasium sending tennis balls soaring over newly hoisted nets. Twenty-year-old Canadian tennis standout Françoise Abanda bounced on her toes on the other side sending the balls sailing right back.
Abanda visited Mutchmor on October 4 to inspire young athletes to set and achieve their goals. She shared some tips and tricks of the tennis trade, then took to the courts to rally with a few lucky fans.
“It’s good to give back, because a lot of people helped me to get here,” she said later. “I’m happy to come, talk, hit some balls around with them.”
Abanda is currently ranked 114th in the world and has had a good year – notably, she qualified for the French Open and the Grand Slam main draw and played at Wimbledon, which she said was the highlight of the season.
Mutchmor vice-principal Christopher Wereley said that many students are avid tennis players and knew of Abanda before her visit. “To see this person on TV, then in the flesh, is extremely exciting for them.” Wereley added that Abanda’s visit was especially inspiring for the girls at Mutchmor. “We’ve had the RedBlacks and the Ottawa 67s come to the school, so to have a professional female athlete that they could look up to was great.”
Along with words of encouragement, Abanda brought some exciting news: the promise of 2,000 used tennis balls. Mutchmor has been selected as a recipient of the National Bank’s On The Ball Initiative, which transforms used tennis balls into chair slippers. Now in its 11th year, the program has collected more than 1,500,000 tennis balls that have benefitted over 375,000 students in Ontario and Quebec.
“The tennis balls allow for smoother transitions,” said Wereley. “When the kids are leaving their desk to move on to another activity, it’s much quieter.” He said this allows other students to be more focused and engaged, as they’re less distracted by chair noises.
Wereley hopes to provide a balanced school experience for Mutchmor students. He said that a focused academic setting mixed with sport as a physical release makes for the perfect, healthy learning environment. “Being active is a great release for the mind. Kids can do better in school when they know that you have that outlet,” he said. “Having Françoise come to the school was something that really got that message across to the students.”
In a Q&A session, students wanted to know who inspired her to keep going. Abanda pointed to her family as a key part of her success.
“My mom really helped me a lot. My sister, who started tennis before me, also inspired me. All the mistakes that she made, I didn’t. Which was unfortunate for her, but great for me,” she laughed.
While her mother is her main support, she is currently looking for a coach. “You have to trust them. Someone with experience, like an ex-player. It’s a lot of things, which is why I don’t want to rush into it. I don’t want to pick just anyone. You’re going to be travelling with them all the time.”
One important thing Abanda wants young athletes to know: going professional is a lot of responsibility. Without a coach, Abanda is largely in charge of her own career. She picks the tournaments she plays in, books her own (usually last-minute) flights and hotels, books practice courts, and organizes even the small stuff. “The balls, the drinks, the towels, the racket, the strings… it’s hard to get there, but it’s even harder to maintain.”
“People think that when I travel it’s like a vacation. But as soon as I get off the plane, I go straight to practice, to the hotel. It’s not as glamourous as it sounds.”
Her next big goals involve winning a slam and beating her current ranking. “Top 100 would be great, but 105 would get me in to the main draw for the Australian Open in January. That’s my next focus. I’m hoping to be main draw. If not, I will have to go through qualifying. And, hopefully, the Olympics one day.”
Irene Galea, a writer from downtown Toronto, is pursuing a Bachelor of Journalism at Carleton University. Her work has been published in Centretown News and The Charlatan.