Tennis is outpaced in terms of popularity by many other sports in the African continent. Even the most iconic names in the game hardly even ring a bell to the inhabitants of the world’s second-largest continent. But recent history suggests Africa is catching up with the rest of the world in producing top-tier talent. There are notable names who set the standard and others who are steadily helping put Africa on the tennis map by touring around the globe and establishing themselves as true sporting icons back home. In this article, we single out the top 10 African tennis players of all time.
Top 10 African Tennis Players of All Time
10. Ismail El Shafei (Egypt)
Ismail El Shafei is one of the very few world-class tennis exponents to come from Egypt. He played his first professional tournament at 15 in 1962 and won six career titles during his playing career. He is the only Egyptian male player to break the world’s top 40.
El Shafei was part of a gaudy list of players–among them Arthur Ashe, John McEnroe, and Roger Taylor–to defeat Bjorn Borg at Wimbledon, stunning the Swedish great in the third round of the 1974 Championships.
9. Younes El Aynaoui (Morocco)
Younes El Aynaoui turned professional in 1990 at the age of 18, having spent time at the Nick Bollettieri tennis academy in Bradenton, Florida. But it was until the noughties that one match, in particular, cemented his legacy as Morocco’s greatest tennis player.
El Aynaoui, at 31, played in one of the most memorable matches in Grand Slam history, in a losing effort against former world #1 Andy Roddick, who was 21 at the time, in the quarterfinals at the 2003 Australian Open. The match featured one of the longest fifth sets in a Grand Slam at two hours and 23 minutes (only surpassed by the Isner-Mahut Wimbledon marathon).
El Aynaoui earned $4 million in prize money during his two decades in competition and won five ATP titles. He was ranked as high as 14th in the world rankings in 2003.
8. Wayne Ferreira (South Africa)
Wayne Ferreira was an absolute giant-killer at his peak. He owns six victories against 14-time Grand Slam winner Pete Sampras and has a winning record against Swiss legend Roger Federer. His ability to pull off marquee upsets distinguished Ferreira from his peers within the African continent.
Ferreira was an iron man at Grand Slam level. He once held the record for most consecutive appearances at the Majors with 56, before it was snatched from him by Federer. Ferrerira made the semifinals of the Australian Open twice in his career.
He won 15 ATP singles titles and reached a career-high #6 in 1995.
7. Kevin Anderson (South Africa)
One of the most recognizable players to come from the African continent is perhaps Kevin Anderson. In his career, he reached two Grand Slam singles finals, at the 2017 US Open and 2018 Wimbledon Championships, losing to Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic respectively.
He won seven ATP titles during his 15-year pro career and recorded 18 top-10 wins including a thrilling five-set victory against 20-time Grand Slam champion Roger Federer at 2018 Wimbledon. Anderson retired from professional tennis in May 2022.
At his pomp, Anderson reached a career-high #5 in the rankings.
6. Sandra Reynolds (South Africa)
Sandra Reynolds is credited for paving the way for future stars in women’s tennis on the African continent. Born in 1934, Reynolds is widely revered for her accomplishments at Grand Slam level before the Open Era began.
She was the golden standard between the late 1950s and early 1960s. In total, Reynolds won five Grand Slams–four in women’s doubles and one in mixed doubles. She is the only South African woman to reach the Wimbledon singles final, back in 1960, where she lost to legendary Brazilian player Maria Bueno, the same year she attained a career-high rank of #3.
5. Amanda Coetzer (South Africa)
Too small to make a difference? Remember Amanda Coetzer. She easily makes the cut as the best South African female tennis player in the modern era.
Coetzer stood at five-foot-two–a minuscule height by tennis standards–with most of her opponents towering over her on the court. But she completely changed the height narrative.
Coetzer made up her for incredibly small stature with speedy footwork and dogged defense. She had an incredibly stunning streak of beating the top five players in the game including Steffi Graf (multiple times), Jana Novotna, and Mary Pierce. At the Canadian Open in 1995, Coetzer defeated all three of them in her run to the final.
Coetzer achieved a Top 10 year-end ranking in five successive seasons between 1997 and 2001. She was the highest-ranked female player in the African continent, peaking at #3 until Tunisia’s Ons Jabeur came to the fore.
4. Kevin Curren (South Africa)
Kevin Curren features in our list of the top 10 African tennis players of all time. Curren was a rare breed of multi-sport athlete, taking up tennis and cricket while in High School in Durban, South Africa. But he excelled in tennis and quickly sprung to prominence in college in the United States where he won the 1979 NCAA singles title at the University of Texas.
He reached two Grand Slam singles finals in his career, at the 1984 Australian Open and 1985 Wimbledon Championships. Although he had switched nationalities by becoming an American citizen at the time he played Mats Wilander in SW19, the groundwork was laid during his time in Africa.
3. Johan Kriek (South Africa)
Johan Kriek, like Kevin Curren, was among a handful of South African tennis players who hold dual citizenship. He became a naturalized American citizen in the early ’80s after the anti-apartheid movement reached its mountaintop in South Africa leaving him with no option but to switch his allegiance for the sake of his career.
Kriek, however, achieved one of the most bizarre and one-of-a-kind feats in Grand Slam history in South African colors. He is the only player to win the same Grand Slam in the same calendar year. He won the 1981 Australian Open which finished on January 3, 1982, and won the 1982 edition of the same tournament in December, remarkably beating the same opponent – Steve Denton – in both finals.
However, his 1982 achievement in Melbourne is credited under the U.S. flag.
2. Cara Black (Zimbabwe)
Zimbabwe has produced a dearth of tennis greats, which is why Cara Black is unopposed as the chief flag bearer to hail from the British colony. She was primarily a doubles operator and won 10 Grand Slams on that front.
Black is one of three women in the Open Era (the others being Martina Navratilova and Daniela Hantuchova) to win a career Grand Slam in mixed doubles. She was ranked world #1 in doubles for a total of 163 weeks and eventually tallied a jaw-dropping 569 weeks in the top 10.
Apart from Cara, the Black family was highly successful on both tours, with brothers Byron and Wayne Black enjoying reasonable success on the men’s tour. In fact, Cara won two of her five mixed-doubles titles while partnering with her brother Wayne at the 2002 French Open and 2004 Wimbledon Championships.
1. Ons Jabeur (Tunisia)
Few players transcend the sport in the manner that Jabeur has within the African and Arab world. The Tunisian star is one the most charismatic characters on tour. Jabeur is adored wherever she plays and is one of the most successful African tennis players of all time.
Jabeur had a highly productive junior career with a 71% win rate (93-38). She reached back-to-back French Open girls’ singles finals in 2010 and 2011 winning the title in the latter. On the senior tour, she reached two Grand Slam singles finals in 2022. One at Wimbledon and the other at the US Open, finishing runner-up in both. As of 2023, she remains the only African woman to have reached a Major singles final in the Open Era.
Jabeur peaked at a career-high ranking of No. 2 in June 2022, becoming the highest-ranked African and Arab tennis player on the ATP and WTA Tours in singles. Jabeur is still active on Tour, so she could well be on her way to more trophy-laden years and thereby cementing her status as the best African tennis player ever.
Main Photo Credit: Mike Frey-USA TODAY Sports