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Brothers Show Tennis Not Just for Rich in Africa

July 26, 1996

STONE MOUNTAIN, Ga. (AP) _ Their first-round Olympics doubles match took place on remote Court 12, far from the nearest radar gun or corporate logo. When the chair umpire made the prematch introductions, their coach was the only person to clap for them.

Claude and Clement N’Goran deserved more applause.

Brothers in a family of 13, the N’Gorans (pronounced in-gore’-un) grew up in a poor neighborhood of Abidjan, Ivory Coast. They couldn’t afford rackets, so they learned to play tennis with wooden paddles they made themselves.

At a private club next to their home, they worked for free picking up balls. They’d practice by hitting off a wall and occasionally fill in when a club member was late arriving for a game.

``My dad would get mad,″ said Clement, 26. ``He didn’t think there was a future in tennis, because tennis is so little in my country. And he was right.″

Clement has been his nation’s top player for much of the past decade, and played singles at the 1988 Olympics. But he estimates that the most he ever made in a year was $18,000. His 21-year-old brother made $2,840 in 1995.

Compare that to Olympic top seed Andre Agassi, who won nearly $3 million last year and made millions more as a sneaker salesman.

At least the N’Gorans no longer have to play with paddles. They get their rackets free from a sports equipment company.

Abidjan has a healthier economy than many African cities. Even so, it exports coffee, not tennis players.

And without coaching or financial support, the N’Gorans have been unable to fulfill their potential, said Jean Claude Delafosse, president of the Ivory Coast tennis federation.

``We are very poor,″ Delafosse said. ``We don’t have the money to push them to a high level.″

Neither did the N’Gorans’ parents. Their father is a retired auto factory worker, their mother a homemaker. Eight boys and three girls grew up in the house.

``We had food and clothes,″ Clement said. ``We weren’t starving.″

As a teen-ager, Clement ranked among the world’s best players in his age group. He won his first tournament title at 13, and four years later he finished third in a prestigious international juniors tournament won by Jim Courier in Miami Beach, Fla.

Some confused N’Goran with a promising Croatian youngster named Goran Ivanisevic.

``I said, `This is the black N’Goran. The other is the white Goran,‴ Delafosse recalled with a laugh.

There’s no confusing them now. Ivanisevic is ranked seventh in the world, Clement 767th.

Claude, ranked 362nd, lets his brother do most of the talking, but he’s the better player. A 6-foot-3 left-hander with a powerful serve, he hopes to qualify for the U.S. Open next month.

As always for the N’Gorans, the chance at prize money means extra pressure, a burden foreign to top players such as Agassi or Pete Sampras.

``It’s not like you have millions of dollars and if you lose a match you can say, `So what?‴ Clement said.

The N’Gorans came to Atlanta with modest expectations and nothing to lose, so they have enjoyed the festivities. The brothers and 20 other Ivory Coast athletes marched in the opening ceremonies.

``It was unbelievable to see all those people,″ Claude said.

``My favorite part,″ Clement said, ``was when they showed the Martin Luther King part about dreaming.″

The N’Gorans won their first-round match Thursday, beating Chih-Jung Chen and Yu-Hui Lien of Taipei 6-2, 6-2. They’ll play Saturday against Holland’s Jacco Eltingh and Paul Haarhuis, one of the best doubles teams in the world.

The N’Gorans probably will lose. But their success already resonates back home.

``It means tennis is possible in my country,″ Delafosse said. ``In the beginning everyone said tennis is for the rich people. They can’t say that now.″

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