Photograph: ©1MoreCreative /istockphoto
Pete Oman, owner of The Tennis Spot in Norwalk and a former No. 1 player on the Cornell tennis team, once played a competitive set against Joseph Oyebog when the two worked as pros at Intensity, the tennis and fitness club on the Norwalk/Westport line. “I was much younger,” Oman, thirty-two, remembers, “but Joseph has a huge serve, and he just hit the ball so hard and clean that he overpowered me.”
Oyebog (pronounced o-yeah-bórg), forty-three, is a commanding presence on the court. At 6 foot, 3 inches and 290 pounds, the Cameroon native used his physical attributes, along with considerable court skills and savvy, to earn a berth on his country’s Davis Cup team. Fortunately for hundreds of Fairfield County tennis players, the Joseph Oyebog they face across the net is a kind and patient coach and trainer. “He has a knowledge of the game on a deep level but also a calm perspective, with both young and older players,” notes Oman. “He’s soft-spoken but firm.”
Joseph Oyebog came to this country on a tennis scholarship to a college in Georgia, arranged by an American company operating in Cameroon, and became a top-ranked collegiate player. “When they told me they would pay for tuition, for lodging, for food, for tennis equipment, I asked, ‘But what do I pay for?’ And when they said, ‘Nothing—and if you take care of maintaining the tennis courts, you can even make some extra money,’ I said, ‘God bless America!’ I immediately felt that if I had been given this opportunity, I could create the same opportunities for others down the stretch.”
In 1999 he founded the Oyebog Tennis Academy (OTA), which today provides facilities, equipment and coaching for some 1,500 Cameroon youth. A tireless advocate of promising tennis players in his country, he and his staff have to date helped some twenty-five OTA alumni win tennis scholarships to American colleges and universities.
Recruited eight years ago by owners of several local tennis clubs in Fairfield County, he also did stints as the Fairfield Ludlowe High School tennis coach and as training coach for Fordham Prep in New York before leaving to give private lessons—largely in order to support his academy as well as his family.
From November to April each year, Joseph lives in Cameroon with his wife and four young children while working with local coaches who help run the academy. The other six months find him in residence in Westport, where he rents a basement apartment from Heidi Kaess, a member of the academy’s board of directors (who, in turn, donates the rent money back to the foundation), and typically gives private tennis lessons from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., seven days a week.
“In Africa, coaches work for $2 a lesson. Here the rate is $100. So every hour I teach here enables fifty children there to receive lessons,” he says. “The environment in Fairfield County gives me the opportunity to grow the academy and support my wife and children.”
Despite a demanding schedule, Oyebog somehow finds time to collect donated used gear, which he ships in containers to Africa. “The vast majority of kids there don’t play on courts—they hit balls against the side of a house with a white line drawn on the wall,” says Kevin Sullivan, a Fairfield resident who hired Joseph seven years ago to coach his son, also Kevin, then a student at the Salisbury School. “Kevin’s game improved tremendously, and then I got the Joseph bug and now take lessons from him on weekends as well.”
In his spare time, Oyebog also attends board meetings and periodic dinners and fundraisings events. Like the one this past August, when the Sullivans hosted an afternoon-long fundraiser for the academy on the poolside court of their Greenfield Hill home, which featured demonstrations and playing time with Mats Wilander, the former No. 1-ranked player in the world and seven-time Grand Slam singles champion. Porsche of Fairfield helped underwrite and showed two new models, the Targa4S and a Panamera e-hybrid.
“I’m very, very grateful for the Sullivan family and all our supporters for what the event has done,” says Joseph, noting that Sunny Leigh and Guy Sherman, a Westport couple who are on the board, funded the purchase of land for courts and a new facility in Souza, Cameroon. “It’s been extremely helpful that the community has been so involved in what we’re trying to accomplish in Africa.”