Representing your nation has got to be one of the proudest moments for any sports star. In tennis, the Davis Cup, Fed Cup and Olympics provide the opportunity to hear your national anthem, while playing in front of a raucous home crowd in tournaments allows you to feel the love from those that follow you.
But what if your country is too small to have its own team? And what if the sport isn’t big in your country?
Meet Abigail Tere-Apisah, who at world number 331, is the highest ranked tennis player from Papua New Guinea. In December 2017, she was one set away from causing one of the biggest upsets in recent tennis history, but it is unlikely that you know about it. Going into the Australian Open Pan-Pacific Wild Card Playoffs, little was fancied of the Papua New Guinean, however Tere-Apisah defied the odds to reach the final. Eventually losing out to teenager Wang Xinyu, Abigail missed out on the opportunity to become the first ever player from her nation to compete at a Grand Slam tournament.
But what is it like being a tennis player from a nation with little budget, support and history in the sport? We caught up with Abigail following a positive year in 2017 to find out.
Tennis in Papua New Guinea
“Tennis isn’t a big sport in Papua New Guinea at all. Most days of the week, the national club is sitting idle. It’s more of a social sport for families, particularly adults that are financially stable or foreigners that are working and living in the country.”
As Abigail says, tennis is not a big sport in Papua New Guinea. Where the locals enjoy rugby league as the number one sport, little, if any, light shines on tennis. It could be for this reason that it’s taken so long for Tere-Apisah to become a professional tennis player.
“My decision to become a professional tennis player didn’t happen overnight. After graduating from college, I wasn’t 100% convinced on the idea of playing Pro. There were a lot of people dear to me that really believed in my game and believed I could play amongst the best in the world but I myself didn’t think so.
“I took a whole year off and spent it at home in Papua New Guinea. I think it was during that time that I realised I was not doing anything at home and I missed playing competitively. So I ended up visiting my brother in Australia and joined in on some of his practices at Meriden (where I currently train), and the rest is history. I absolutely love the process of working hard on the court and in the gym. I don’t feel like it’s a chore when previously it felt like it. So I’m absolutely having a blast on my journey.”
Funding and finding inspiration
As a sport which doesn’t have much following, finding tennis was by chance for Abigail. Not aspiring to be like a particular player, it was due to her parents’ and brothers’ time on the courts that made Abigail pick up a tennis racket.
“My parents are both tennis coaches and because my elder brothers both played, it was the only thing I grew up around so I just went along with it without consciously understanding what I could gain from it. If you ask my parents, they will tell you I used to hate watching tennis when it was on TV. Playing it was enough, why should I watch more? But in all seriousness, I would say my family, my parents have been my main influence in the sport and I’m really thankful for it.”
Like many a tennis tale, funding plays a big part. Where players from the UK benefit from support from the Lawn Tennis Association, Abigail doesn’t reap the rewards from having such luxuries.
“It’s been difficult trying to secure funding and my parents have sacrificed and worked really hard to help me get to where I am. Because it’s not a major sport, money really isn’t invested into tennis so a lot of the times, young players and myself, for example, have to look for funding on our own.”
Despite this obstacle, 2017 saw Abigail Tere-Apisah have her best season to date and she has provided herself with a fantastic opportunity to break further ground as a tennis player from Papua New Guinea. In October, she reached her first $25k ITF final, losing to Olivia Rogowska 6-1 2-6 2-6, and ended the year in the top 350 after making the semi finals in a $60k tournament in Bendigo.
“It was definitely an amazing run to reach a final. It also disappointing at the same time but my goals for next year are to start playing higher level ITF tournaments and also maybe enter some WTA tournaments.”
In the doubles, Tere-Apisah has excelled and won four titles in 2017, three of which with Leeds-born Australian Naiktha Bains. “There’s no doubt there’ll be some bumps in the road as we progress to playing higher level tournaments and WTAs, but I think that’s only going to help us learn more about each other and what we as a team can work on to get better. For me personally, doubles translates into my singles game and I find it just as important. I actually love doubles and if I have the chance to play both singles and doubles at a tournament, I’m going to take it and go with it.”
Representing the minor nations
With a country with so few professional tennis players, how does Abigail represent Papua New Guinea at the Fed Cup? Well, it’s perhaps not what you’d expect. Papua New Guinea is part of a wider team – Pacific Oceania – which represents ten nations and Abigail is very much a key player in the team.
“I think it’s absolutely amazing when you can represent your sister countries. Although ideally, it would be a dream to have a Papua New Guinea Fed Cup team, there are just too many factors that don’t allow our young Papua New Guineans to be groomed and trained consistently to be top players. I am proud to be the lone Papua New Guinean in the Pacific Oceania Fed Cup team and I’m proud to represent all the other island nations.”
Despite facing so many factors that may have prevented a career in professional tennis, Abigail Tere-Apisah is a fine example of a sportsperson that has true grit and determination. Her secret? Surrounding yourself with people that believe in your potential, consistently putting in hard work and working with like-minded people.
“No amount of words or money can describe how supportive my family and friends have been throughout my whole tennis career. My parents have been no doubt the core all my tennis years and I have an unbelievable support system from my extended family and friends.
“There’s been a tonne of people that have positively contributed to my career over the years so it hasn’t been just one person. I’ve been fortunate that people believe in me and want to help me pursue my dreams. I may not be in contact with them all the time, but I hope they know I’m still thankful for what they’ve contributed to my life.
“I also want to thank my current team at Meriden (where I train) for taking me on board and helping me better myself as a player on court but more importantly as a person. And a thank you to my sponsors the ITF development Fund as well as Kina Securities LTD PNG for helping me pursue this career.”
Abigail wants to show that young female Papua New Guineans can become what they want to be and can chase their dreams, wherever they lie. While she’s certainly had to make some sacrifices during her career, such as moving away, Tere-Apisah has shown that she has the skill and ability to become the first ever player from Papua New Guinea to make a Grand Slam main draw. Whatever happens over the next year, she is definitely a role model for all young tennis fans to aspire to and Papua New Guineans should be proud to follow their number one player.