Tennis coach who fled war and saw friends die said the sport ‘saved’ him

There are few tennis coaches with a story like Sam Jalloh.

The 39-year-old Sierra Leonean grew up in a time where the country was in the middle of a raging civil war, one of the worst in Africa, which saw thousands die and children involved in the warfare.

For a nine-year-old Sam however, travelling regularly into the jungle to collect wood with his mother would see them pass a tennis court that caught his eye and would change his life forever.

“I would see a lot of white guys and a few Black people playing tennis,” Sam told My London.

He added: “Hand tennis was a popular sport in Sierra Leone and I would play that. When my mum and dad got divorced in 1989 I think, my mum moved to the area next to the tennis court we would go past.

Sam Jalloh has come a long way from playing tennis bare foot as a boy
Sam Jalloh has come a long way from playing tennis bare foot as a boy
(Image: Sam Jalloh)

“I started playing tennis there. I couldn’t afford racket so I was playing with my hands, or using plywood. I would play barefoot because I couldn’t afford shoes.”

Sam said he played tennis barefoot until he was 13 years old, his love for the sport wouldn’t see him give up.

However Sam’s passion for tennis wasn’t shared by the people around him. He also played football and was one of the best youth goalkeepers in the country, pipped to go on to national level, but when Sam told his football coach he wanted to take tennis seriously, he thought Sam was drunk.

Sam’s father also had some choice words.

“My dad said if I ever touch that ‘rich white man sport I’ll cut all your fingers’,” Sam said.

He added: “He wanted me to be a doctor, back in the day we didn’t have any sports heroes. I defied my dad – that’s why I moved in with my mum and played tennis. Tennis has helped pave my way.”

Sam won the BBC Inspirations Awards 2020
Sam won the BBC Inspirations Awards 2020
(Image: Sam Jalloh)

For Sam living in poverty, walking 15 miles a day to school, eating one meal a day and being in the epicentre of a civil war made the perks of playing tennis on a national level even more attractive.

Sam said hearing how national youth players were receiving $250 (£177), tracksuits and equipment motivated him to make it big in tennis.

Seeing his best friend Alamami shot dead in front of him in 1998 was the devastating turning point that pushed Sam into becoming the tennis star he is today.

“That changed my life,” Sam said.

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He added: “After he passed away, I thought I really need to play tennis. He used to teach me a bit of tennis, he was an inspiration to me, he always told me I’d make it.”

Sam went on to represent Sierra Leone at a national level and even competed for Sierra Leone at the 2007 ninth African Games, formerly known as the The All-Africa Games.

Sam was able to compete for Sierra Leone travelling to Ghana and Togo with the national team. He shared a story of a time he was able to give his dad $50 of his tennis earnings and saw him completely change his negative perception of the sport.

Due to financial issues the 2007 African Games would be the last time Sam would compete for his country competitively.

Sam decided to become a tennis coach and trains young people, travelling over 90 countries in the world and developing future tennis stars.

Sam Jalloh now trains young people across the world
Sam Jalloh now trains young people across the world
(Image: Sam Jalloh)

As a qualified tennis coach Sam also trains young people in the UK, including working with London charities to motivate young people and keep them from gang violence.

After achieving so much in his career and being a father of two himself, Sam said his motivation now is rooted in supporting young people reach their goals. He even wrote a book called How Tennis Changed My Life where he speaks of all the challenges he’s faced and overcome on his journey.

“I grew up in the war in Sierra Leone and it’s mostly the kids involved in the war,” Sam said.

He added: “A lot of these kids are not motivated. This has caused all the problems for us. Seeing how hard they want to make it, I want to give them an opportunity.

“That’s what motivates me.”

For more information on Sam Jalloh, you can visit his website here.

My London – Local News