Asnath Sebati is a firm believer in working hard to achieve success not be afforded opportunities because of the colour of her skin, or to tick the quota box. She wants to make a real difference in the lives of future tennis stars.
In 2019, the junior tennis coach turned down an offer to coach the senior team at the All Africa Games in Rabat as she felt that it was not her time, and that perhaps she was offered the role because she was a black female coach.
She says that there were more suitable coaches available for the position in the national setup and while many felt that she missed out on an opportunity, she believes that what is due to her will come when the time is right.
Sebati’s passion for tennis began at a young age and she dreamt of one day becoming a tennis player.
But, a lack of financial assistance and frequent tournaments in her community, made it a mountain to climb to make her dream a reality.
She turned her attention to coaching and is helping other young players to make their dreams a reality, as she uses her experience to impact their lives.
As a champion of women empowerment, Sebati is hopeful that in the coming years more girls will see sport as a lifelong career with increased funding from grassroots level.
Her ultimate goal is to take tennis back into the rural areas and develop more players for the country.
Speaking with Celine Abrahams, Sebati chats about overcoming challenges and reflects on her career highlights.
Asnath, please tell us more about you and where your passion for sports comes from?
My passion comes mostly from my mother and my grandmother. They are both extremely strong women who have worked hard throughout their lives. They both showed me that there is no hardship that you can’t overcome. My mother loved sports. We always had live sports on TV growing up, especially when the West Indies were playing cricket. My mother always encouraged me to play something whether it was games or sports.
As kids we were never in the house. We would play all sorts of games like Chicago, Mogusha, Kgati, Diketo, Bathi. I loved playing games and having fun with my older sisters and the other kids in my neighbourhood. I think my passion for sports has a lot to do with the competitive games we played in the neighbourhood. I was, and still am very competitive. That competitive spirit and love for playing games was the real fuel that ignited my passion for sports.
“We were coached by older tennis players in Lebowakgomo. There were many passionate tennis players who were willing to help us learn growing up. I think having that support structure got me hooked into tennis specifically.” – Junior tennis coach, Asnath Sebati
I was quite lucky growing up that we had a decent tennis structure at the local stadium, which kept us playing tennis as long as we did. There were no full-time coaches. We were coached by older tennis players in Lebowakgomo. There were many passionate tennis players who were willing to help us learn growing up. I think having that support structure got me hooked into tennis specifically. We were like a family.
What was the decision for you to not continue playing tennis but rather take on a coaching role?
I realised that I wasn’t going to make it as a top tennis player, but I love tennis and knew that I wanted to have a career in tennis. So, I decided that I would become a tennis coach. Although we had a nice community of tennis players, there weren’t many opportunities to play tournaments where I came from, and the school I went to didn’t offer tennis as a sport.
To play tournaments and build a ranking, we would have to travel far to tournaments, which was expensive. Having said that, I was fortunate to have a local sponsor who helped me play a few tournaments. At the end of the day, to make it as a player, you have to have access to lots of competition and money. As a coach I can help more players reach this goal and overcome some of the barriers I faced.
What are the challenges of trying to make a career as a black woman in sport?
This is a big question and I am not sure I will be able to capture the depth of it. There are not a lot of female coaches in tennis, and even less black female coaches. There is also a strong transformation agenda within sports. As a black female coach, I have been given many opportunities for which I am very grateful; however, there have been times when those opportunities were not given to me, Assy, they were given to the qualified black female coach. I have turned down such offers because they consider what I am, and not who I am.
I am not in tennis to force my way to the top. If I get to the top it will be because I put in the hard yards. I know my limitations and I also know where I can succeed. I think that there are far too many people who have been put in places where they cannot grow and develop because they are out of their depth and they are not given the right support structures to succeed. I think a big challenge as a black woman in sports is being used for my gender and race, and then being judged for the positions I hold because I am a black woman and not because I have worked hard to hold them.
How have you been able to overcome these challenges?
It hasn’t been easy, but I do love a challenge. I have worked hard and grown a lot since I started coaching. I am quite reflective of my coaching and I spend a lot of time working on ways to improve. I take every opportunity to further my skills and I spend a lot of time talking with other coaches, sharing experiences and exchanging ideas. I think when you work on your coaching and you achieve the successes you aim for, you build credibility.
“It is important for me to stand my ground on certain issues, especially in cases where I feel that I have been considered because of what I am rather than who I am.” – Sebati speaks on standing up for what she believes is right.
It is important for me to stand my ground on certain issues, especially in cases where I feel that I have been considered because of what I am rather than who I am. I think that by being vocal I have started to break through some barriers, and I think that has helped people to see me for who I am, I hope.
It was said that you once turned down the role as tennis coach for the All Africa Games in Rabat. Is this true? If so, why?
Yes, it is true. I felt that I was offered the role because I was a black female coach. I am not involved in tennis to tick boxes. There is a fine line between dignified transformation and window dressing. I am not here to make things appear to be what they are not.
I had not been in the national set up for long and I honestly thought that there were other more suited coaches for the position. I have only coached junior players and do not have experience with senior players. As much as some people might think I missed an opportunity, I believe that my time will come when I am ready for it.
When do you feel will be the right time for you?
At the moment my focus is on working with junior players. I will work my way up one age group at a time. There is a lot to learn and experience before taking on the responsibility of senior players.
What would you say have been your biggest highlights of your career so far?
My biggest highlight has to be when my team qualified for the World Junior Tennis Finals in 2019. We beat Morocco, the tournament favourites, to come second, after Egypt, at the African Junior Team Championship on clay in Algeria. Firstly, it was big to qualify on clay. We don’t have clay courts in South Africa and the North African teams dominate on clay. We fought for hard in that tournament. The top two teams qualified to represent Africa at the World Junior Tennis Finals in the Czech Republic. The WJTF is the highest team event an U14 junior player can qualify for. Many of the top players in the world have taken part in the Finals. So, it was a real honour for us as a team to be there representing both South Africa and Africa.
Generally, what are your thoughts on women’s sport?
I am a big fan of women’s sport. I take every opportunity to watch whatever live matches I can. There has been a lot of work put into growing and professionalising women’s sport. It is about time that young girls can dream about becoming a professional athlete or coach, and actually being on the field of play. Platforms like gsport have done a lot to bring awareness to and celebrate women in sport. I am hopeful that women’s sport in South Africa has a bright future.
What do you think we need to do to improve the state of women’s sport in the country?
Exposure, exposure, exposure! We need more girls playing sports, and we need more lifelong female athletes. We also need to understand that the pathway to becoming a professional athlete differs for female players. We can do more to understand developing female athletes. There are far too many teenage girls who stop playing sports and it is important that we make sporting structures more accommodating for developing female athletes to stay in sports.
“I mean, in South Africa, we don’t have the rights to air women’s tennis except for during Grand Slams. So, most of the tennis we have exposure to is the men’s tour.” – Sebati points out the challenges women’s sport faces in the country.
I also believe that we need to see more women playing sport professionally. Compared with when I was growing up, there is a lot more women’s sport aired on TV, but I think there should be more. I mean, in South Africa, we don’t have the rights to air women’s tennis except for during Grand Slams. So, most of the tennis we have exposure to is the men’s tour.
Most importantly, we need to increase the funding to female sports, especially at grassroots level. We need more facilities being built and maintained. More schools need functioning sports programmes, and we need to increase the number of suitably qualified coaches.
Who are the female women in sport that inspire you?
As players I look up to Venus and Serena Williams! Growing up, they were the two athletes who looked like me and made it. They worked hard, stood up for what was fair and right, and they dominated the world of tennis. Growing up I also admired Ria Ledwaba who owned her own soccer club in a male dominated world. Ria is also from Limpopo and she showed us that it was possible to make a career in sports. She was a role model for many of us.
What is your greatest ambition?
I think my ultimate goal is to take tennis back home, to get more kids playing tennis in rural spaces. So many of us coaches have left home to work in bigger cities because that is where we can earn a living in sports. I would love to see more competitive tennis players coming out of townships and rural areas, and I would love to see more professional coaches/coaching moving into rural and townships spaces.
Photo 1 Caption: Asnath Sebati is a firm believer in working hard to achieve success and not be afforded opportunities because of the colour of your skin to tick the quota box as she looks to make a difference in the lives of future tennis stars. Photo: Supplied
Photo 2 Caption: In 2019, the junior tennis coach turned down an offer to coach the senior team at the All Africa Games in Rabat as she felt that it was not her time and was offered the role because she was a black female coach. Photo: Supplied
Photo 3 Caption: She says that there were more suitable coaches available for the position in the national setup and as many felt that she missed out on an opportunity, she believes that what is due to her will come when the time is right. Photo: Supplied
Photo 4 Caption: Sebati’s passion for tennis began at a young age and she dreamt of one day becoming a tennis player. However, due to the lack of financial assistance and frequent tournaments in her community, she realised that it was going to be a mountain to climb to make her dream a reality. Photo: Supplied