Penina Kamu and Te Akaiti Toa first met in New Zealand in 2014 at opposite ends of a tennis court, Penina representing Samoa, Te Akaiti playing for the Cook Islands. Fast forward six years and the girls are not only playing on the same team, the rising tennis stars are neighbours in the Sydney suburb of Campsie. Attending Meriden, Penina and Te Akaiti have quickly become family – to each other and to Meriden’s tennis team – and the girls are opening doors for other young Pacific Islander players to follow their dreams.
The girls’ journey to Australia began with the Meriden Tennis Team, led by renowned Head Coach Ross Anton, competing in an ITF tournament in Fiji. It was here that Penina, also a competitor at the event, saw the finesse of the Australian girls’ squad first-hand.
“When I saw the Meriden team in Fiji, I was inspired by how they were training each day and performing on the court and I really wanted to be part of that team!” she said.
“I could see that the girls had great support from the coaches, a strong team atmosphere and such enthusiasm to train and I really liked that.”
This encounter set the wheels in motion for Penina’s move to Sydney in 2019 and for Te Akaiti to follow in 2020, when she, too, became enamoured with the idea of developing her passion for tennis at Meriden after hearing about the school’s program from Penina’s mother, Mrs Mona Lisa Kamu.
“I wanted to come to Meriden to develop my tennis and to open the door for other young tennis players to pursue their tennis careers,” Te Akaiti said.
“The academic side of school is quite challenging, especially English class, because the subjects are so different to how they were at home but my teachers are helping me to understand the content. The tennis team is really supportive, too, and everyone puts in an effort to help us succeed; Coach Ross says our squad is not about the individual, it’s always a team effort with everyone working together to be better.”
“I feel really happy here and I know my family is happy that I am doing well and carrying on our family passion for tennis,” Te Akaiti said.
While succeeding in the classroom, the girls train daily with specialist coaches through the Meriden Tennis Academy and are going from strength to strength. Penina was a member of Meriden’s 2020 Tildesley Tennis Team and helped win the championship trophy for the eleventh consecutive year. In 2019, she represented Samoa at the Pacific Games, winning silver in the Women’s Team event. Meanwhile, Te Akaiti’s burgeoning skills earned her a place on Meriden’s top Junior Squad which competed in the IGSSA competition and she continues to prepare for Junior ITF events.
Coach Ross said that, apart from being assets to the performance of the Meriden squad, Penina and Te Akaiti’s personal qualities make them a blessing to the spirit of the team.
“The girls come from wonderful families who, together with their first coaches, have raised them to be hardworking and respectful, which are the foundational qualities young people need when they’re looking to succeed in any sport,” Coach Ross said.
“Both girls have a strong commitment to their team and to their goals and have shown resilience, dedication and patience for the process of developing their skills. They are valued players on the Meriden Tennis Team and important members of the Meriden family.”
Both Penina and Te Akaiti said they love life in Australia but the pull home is strong and they miss being physically close to their families. Despite this, the girls are making the most of the many opportunities available to them in Sydney.
“Sydney is a very multicultural place and I am enjoying learning about different cultures and meeting lots of new people,” Penina said.
“It can sometimes be hard to maintain a balance between sport and school so being part of the Olympus Program is great. I love being at Meriden because, besides the amazing tennis coaches, I have a big team of sisters here,” she said.
Meriden’s Olympus program supports emerging athletes to balance academic and sporting priorities, access specialist coaches and maintain health and wellbeing.
Coach Ross said the Meriden Tennis Academy is adept at supporting students holistically.
“We have developed a program over the past decade that can adapt around our students’ needs. Our coaching staff includes Patrick Apisah, Head Coach of the Papua New Guinean Women’s Tennis Team and Jerome Rovo, former Olympian and current Head Coach of Vanuatu’s Women’s Tennis Team. These experienced coaches bring a Pacific Island connection to our squad but all members of our coaching team work on the understanding that we are developing a young person first and a player second,” Coach Ross said.
Penina and Te Akaiti are training to work their way up to play in Junior Grand Slam events. Both girls are driven to succeed but always with their home countries in mind.
“I am hoping to go to college in America to play tennis and after that, I’d like to help develop tennis in Samoa, to bring more girls to the sport and hopefully to the opportunities at Meriden!” Penina said.
Te Akaiti, too has grand plans for the future.
“After Meriden, I’d like to go home for a break and then sign up for college in America and play a few tournaments. I’m hoping to go pro after that then go back home and help the little ones play tennis,” she said.
Meriden is proud to continue to be a part of the journeys of these exceptional young women who have already made their mark on the sport.