How Veronica Osogo is Giving Kids the Upper Hand with Tennis

Brian Gabriel Canever
Brian Gabriel Canever / Brian Gabriel Canever

By Veronica Osogo, as told to Jaya Saxena

Veronica Osogo knows tennis as more than just a sport. For her, it’s a tool to teach kids about health, fitness, discipline, independence, and the value of a good education. The 39-year-old tennis champ and Kenyan native founded the Zion Zone Tennis Foundation, an organization that engages children in the slums of Nairobi. Here, Osogo tells us about her success on and off the court.

I was athletic as a child, playing soccer and hockey, but I didn’t know what tennis was until I went to Guru Nanak Dev University in India, where a friend introduced it to me. At first I was drawn to the dress code—tennis players always looked so nice!—but I also enjoyed that it’s an individual sport. You can play and practice without relying on a team. I liked the idea of finding success on my own.

Most professional tennis players start when they’re little, but I was 19 when I learned how to play. I had no idea what I was doing. I wasn’t playing to win, I was playing to enjoy! I kept learning and started winning titles.

I got the inspiration for Zion Zone in 2006 when I visited a neighbor who had a project in the Kibera slum in Nairobi. She asked me to teach the kids tennis. At first I refused, scared for my life. Eventually, I agreed.

It was hard to see. It didn’t look like a place where people should be living. Kids would get sick because there was no drainage system, and they were living in shanties. But I brought over a few rackets, and the kids loved it. They didn’t know what it was—they kept calling it golf! But more kids would pass by and watch. A few were really talented, and I saw that, for them, tennis could be more than just a game. It never dawned on me that I could start a foundation—I was just keeping kids busy. It was my brother who encouraged me.

At Zion Zone, we teach these kids the fundamentals of tennis as well as discipline. Before, many of them went to school only a few days a week, or not at all. Now, the kids must be enrolled in school to participate. If their parents don’t put them in school, I find a school.

We have 500 students now, but I’m hoping to expand the organization to other slums. We’ve partnered with the U.S. Department of State and ESPN Global Sports Mentoring Program. I hope to recruit more girls, and I also want to start programs for kids in wheelchairs, and for those who are hard of hearing. One day I hope to have our own piece of land, with courts, a school, and a gym—a place where kids can feel at home.

Tennis is a great mobilizer. A lot of these kids played soccer, which is part of the slums. But it’s played in a big group. With tennis you can see each child for who he or she is. Some of them who never knew the sport became No. 1 in the country. When other kids see that, they see that a life outside the slums is possible.