Angella Okutoyi and Meshkat al-Zahra Safi make history at Australian Open

Iran’s Meshkat al-Zahra Safi and Kenya’s Angella Okutoyi have both reached historic milestones at the first grand slam of the year and have been inspiring the next generation of talent.

On Sunday, Okutoyi became the first girl from Kenya to win a grand slam juniors match and she is showing no signs of slowing down.

After beating Australian Zara Larke in three sets on Tuesday, she is now the first Kenyan to reach the third round of a grand slam in any singles event.

“I am happy to represent my country and everyone back home. It gives me motivation and I believe it gives Kenyan kids motivation to believe they can do it,” she said after her win.

Meanwhile, Safi made history on Sunday when she became the first Iranian — boy or girl — to win a junior grand slam match.

The 17-year-old beat Australia’s Anja Nayar 6-4 6-3 at the Australian Open junior event in what was another highlight in her already impressive fledgling career.

“I wanted to say about my match today that thank God I was able to perform well in my first match against an Australian opponent from the host country,” she said in a video to sports channel Varzesh 3.

She also thanked the “dear Iranians for all their messages of support and energy.”

Angella Okutoyi in action during the junior Australian Open.

Inspiring the next generation

According to the International Tennis Federation (ITF), Safi won 10 junior titles across both singles and doubles last year and climbed the junior rankings to 74th in the world.

She also became the first player from Iran to be ranked inside the top 100 of the junior rankings and is excited to use her success to motivate more girls to pick up the sport.

Safi lost in the next round to Belgium’s Sofia Costoulas — 6-0 6-2 — on Tuesday but is determined to inspire others.

“Although this is not my ultimate goal, it gives me a great feeling to be a motivation for other Iranian junior players and to encourage them,” Safi told the ITF before the Australian Open began.

“Over the past years, perhaps the belief of the Iranian players has been that it is difficult to achieve something at international level.

“I hope that my improvements will encourage players and coaches to double their efforts.”

Safi has previously acknowledged the difficulties of developing as a tennis player in Iran — where resources are scarce — but is determined to keep progressing through the ranks.

In Iran, sport and politics have always mixed and athletes are put under huge pressure to comply with a set of rules.

Safi in action during the first round on January 23, 2022 at Melbourne Park.

‘I really had tough times’

There have been multiple examples of athletes fleeing the country over safety fears.
“To get to this point, I really had tough times because playing professional tennis in my country is really hard,” she added to the ITF.

“I had a really tough time playing tournaments, getting visas and I didn’t have sponsors too many times.

“But if I had a message to other young people like me, I’d just say, ‘Don’t give up on your dreams.’ When I started, everyone in Iran was saying it was impossible and that I couldn’t play grand slams, especially to my mom.

“That is why I never told my dream to anyone, I just kept pushing. I want to tell people: ‘Keep pushing and believing in your dream.’ Reaching this success today is really big and I hope that I can continue.”

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