Trojan Salma Ewing’s journey into the painful history of her mother’s homeland
The game of tennis has taken Salma Ewing all over the world, from Costa Rica to France to the United Kingdom and more. But the most memorable tournament of her career took place in Stellenbosch, South Africa, at the 2017 ITA Stellenbosch $15k.
Ewing, who is now a freshman on the women’s tennis team at USC, won six matches in a row (four of which went to three sets) to make it to the finals of the tournament.
In the finals, Pasadena-born Ewing faced off against South Africa’s No. 1 player, Chanel Simmonds. Despite being on the younger end of an eight-year age gap, Ewing held her own for most of the first set. The adversaries were locked up at 4-all when the unthinkable happened: Ewing got stung by a bee. Dealing with pain and distraction, she dropped the final two games to lose the first set, 6-4.
Ewing dug deep and managed to win the second set, 6-4. With the match all squared up, Ewing knew she had to be patient, yet aggressive, to come out on top. Despite a South African crowd rooting hard for her opponent, Ewing managed to get out in front and give herself multiple match points.
With the title on the line, Ewing took a deep breath.
“OK, you need to be fearless,” she told herself.”
And fearless she was. She approached the net and drilled an inside-out forehand that barely grazed the line. She held her breath, waiting to see if her opponent or the line judge would call it out.
But Simmonds clapped her racquet and conceded. Ewing had won.
Ewing’s mother, Reyana, stood up in the crowd and simultaneously began to cheer and cry. Not only had her middle daughter just won her first $15K tournament as an amateur, she had won it in Reyana’s home country of South Africa, on a set of courts Reyana was prohibited from playing on as a little girl.
Reyana Abrahams was born in Cape Town, about 30 miles west of Stellenbosch, in 1970. From the moment the dark-skinned girl was born, she was subjected to her home country’s system of institutionalized racial segregation known as apartheid.
Apartheid took effect in South Africa in 1948 when the National Party came to power and established laws to favor the country’s minority white population (mostly descended from Dutch and British colonists). The government created three other racial categories: Black, Coloured and Indian. These groups were removed from their homes and forced to live in segregated communities. They were forced to attend different schools and visit different public places than white South Africans. Interracial marriages were outlawed.
For Reyana, apartheid meant discovering a love for tennis while practicing on dilapidated courts, rife with cracks, sometimes without so much as a net.
Reyana’s father dedicated himself to her success, buying a book on how to play tennis to better instruct his daughter. He also bought a ball machine to help her improve her game, but most of the courts she was forced to play on, due to the “Coloured” label on her birth certificate, lacked electricity.
“I’d have to play in a banquet hall because it would have electricity,” she said. “So my dad would put up a net inside. If we did get on a court, and if the court was next to a swimming pool or another facility, he would run this long extension cord all the way from there. But I didn’t care. I’d play as much as I could. Whenever, wherever I could.”
Despite the obvious hurdles, Reyana grew into one of the best junior tennis players in South Africa. At 11 years old, she made the Western Province tennis team and competed against other Black, Coloured and Indian players at the national Under-12 Tournament. As a teenager, she traveled to the United Kingdom for tournaments and to South Carolina for the Van Der Meer Tennis Academy.
But while her tennis career was flourishing, her academic career floundered.
Reyana participated in a number of protests as a teenager, including a school boycott.
“Around mid-1985, schools shut down because of all the unrest,” she said. “We started boycotting heavily and it just snowballed and got bigger and bigger and eventually the schools shut down because we weren’t even at school. You’re participating in this because you want the right to eventually vote, you want to have equality, you want to have the same education that white South Africans have, you want the same facilities, you want Nelson Mandela and the other leaders to be released from prison. You know they’re on Robben Island. You know you’re living in a dysfunctional society. You want to go to that beach. You want to go to Camps Bay and enjoy it like white people can. You fight, fight, fight for a better life.”
After many of her classmates returned to school, Reyana continued to boycott. All in all, she missed two years of standardized schooling. She attempted correspondence school, where books and curriculum were mailed to her home, but she struggled to keep up. Eventually, one local principal took a chance on Reyana — despite her lack of educational foundations in some subjects — and invited her back to finish her high school degree.
As her high school days came to an end, Reyana and her family hoped the game of tennis could give her an opportunity for a better life. Her father wrote letters to influential figures like tennis legend Arthur Ashe, cleric and activist Desmond Tutu and Atlanta mayor Andrew Young in an attempt to get her out of segregated South Africa.
Eventually, the women’s tennis coach at Georgia State University in Atlanta caught wind of Reyana. Without ever meeting the young, hard-working South African, Georgia State offered Reyana an athletic scholarship.
“I jumped at the opportunity,” Reyana said. “In ’88 and ’89, the struggle and the protests and the demonstrations were really at a climax. People were getting killed left and right. … We felt like Mandela was going to die in prison and apartheid would flourish and continue. So I knew I had to get out of there. Even though it’s my home and geographically it’s gorgeous, I wasn’t appreciating the beauty when I was socially oppressed and subjugated. So I jumped, I ran, I didn’t even look back.”
Reyana grew up having to fight for everything she had, and her determination served her well once she got to the United States. She played at the No. 1 spot and earned All-Conference honors three out of her four years at Georgia State. After graduating with a degree in nutrition, she moved to Los Angeles to pursue a Master’s degree. She met her husband on a tennis court in LA, and together they had three daughters: Vera, Salma and Mina.
Despite her love of the game, Reyana didn’t push her daughters toward tennis at first. She only got the girls out on the court after her mother visited in 2010 and offered some sage advice.
“You’ve got to give something of yourself to the kids,” Reyana’s mother told her. “Transfer some knowledge or part of who you are to your children. Teach them Afrikaans or teach them tennis.”
Reyana thought back to the hours her parents spent giving her tennis instruction and helping her graduate high school and college.
From that day forward, Reyana played tennis with her daughters for at least an hour every day. When Salma’s talent became more apparent, Reyana cut back from full-time work to spend more time coaching her daughter. Eventually, she quit her job to give all the attention she could to Salma’s development.
Salma, who plays at the No. 1 spot for USC and is currently ranked No. 34 in the nation, has always appreciated her mother’s dedication to her success.
“We’re super close,” said Salma. “Ever since she started coaching me when I was 10, we’ve always been together, on and off the court. I was always with her instead of a coach. It makes me feel very supported to have her there at every single match. Having my parents there and knowing they love me no matter what, win or lose, helps me stay calm on-court.”
Salma, like her mother, also feels grateful for all the doors tennis has opened up for her.
“Tennis has given me so much, like the ability to travel to all these beautiful places and meet all these people whose stories have shaped me as a person,” she explained.
Salma has also gained a unique perspective on life thanks to her extensive time spent in Cape Town. When she visited as a child, a 12-year-old, a 16-year-old and again for the tournament when she was 17, she soaked in the city’s breathtaking beauty but also realized how much poverty still exists there.
“It definitely made me grateful for everything I have over here, like transportation, food, technology and more,” she said.
Despite the country’s tumultuous history and the effects it had on her mother, Salma holds a soft spot in her heart for South Africa.
“Knowing that my mom wasn’t allowed to play on those courts in Stellenbosch and that I could come there and not only play those tournaments, but win them, meant so much to me. It was so bittersweet,” Salma said. “I feel a very strong connection between me and South Africa. Even though I wasn’t born there, it still feels like a second home to me.”
By Aubrey Kragen