Champions On and Off the Court: Sylvia and Michael Okala's 40-Year Contribution to Tennis Excellence
In the heart of the DC Metro area, a tennis love story has unfolded since the late 1970s. Sylvia and Michael Okala, a power couple both on and off the court, have etched their names in the annals of Mid-Atlantic tennis history.
Michael's journey in tennis began at the age of nine on the bustling courts of Harlem, New York, known to this day as “The Jungle”. By the age of 13, he was already an outstanding junior player, eventually leading to a full scholarship for tennis at Howard University, where he played with fervor for three years. However, during his senior year, a new chapter beckoned. He made the bold decision to leave Howard and further his tennis career on the professional circuit, facing off against formidable opponents like Vitas Gerualaitis, Ben McGowan, Armistead Neely, and Bill Austin from the US, Compton Russell from Jamaica, John Alexander from Australia, and Russell Simpson from New Zealand.
In contrast, Sylvia's tennis story started later in life, sprouting at the age of 30 when she stepped onto the courts at the Anacostia Public Courts. Fate would have it that Sylvia and Michael crossed paths on the indoor basketball court of Cardozo High School, featuring a makeshift net. The result? A love that transcended the boundaries of the court, culminating in their wedding ceremony in St. Thomas, where, unsurprisingly, they competed in the Bolongo Bay Tournament in 1983 and even made it to the semi-finals. Sylvia fondly remembers those early days when Michael was not only her life partner, but also her tennis coach. She reflects, "I was learning to play tennis, and Michael was my coach. Now, Michael has continued to be my coach, whenever I play on a team."
Sylvia, Michael, Juanita Harris and Jerome Bettis played pivotal roles as the pioneering founders and participants of USTA League tennis. In the late 1970s, under the guidance of the Washington Tennis Association (WTA) and its President Juanita Harris, the USTA introduced adult tennis leagues in the Mid-Atlantic region, setting a precedent for the entire country. Michael recalls those early days, saying, "Back then, we didn't know anything about league tennis, until Juanita gave us a call. She had read info from USTA about a league to reach grassroots players."
The league kicked off at Hains Point in Washington, D.C., serving as a central hub for players from D.C., Maryland, and Virginia, due to the closest league sites being in Baltimore and Richmond. Michael reminisces, "In the early days, Michelob Light and Kahlua were our league sponsors. One of the players, Bill Todd, was a salesperson for Kahlua." Sylvia adds, "We spent hours on the phone recruiting players and explaining how the league worked. There was no internet, and most people wanted to be rated a 5.0." A manual rating process was needed. Michael explains, "Since there were no ratings, players needed to get their [NTRP] rating from a registered rater, usually a professional at a local club, for an in-person evaluation.”
In addition to recruiting and logistics, the founding leaders had to establish rules for team vs individual match scoring. Interestingly, the Washington, D.C. (WDC) league remains unique to this day in its approach to scoring. Unlike the majority of other league areas, the WDC league determines league winners by individual wins as opposed to team wins. Why? The founding leaders wanted to avoid a common practice of forfeiture. For example, if a league team was ahead by team wins, the team would only show up with enough players to win 3 out of 5 courts, thus defaulting the other two courts. The opposing team would then have players on site without opponents to compete against which didn’t seem fair to people who came to play but had no opponents.
Following their successful WDC league launch, Sylvia and Michael continued to play while also assuming leadership roles as captains and coaches over the ensuing decades. They eventually passed the torch to Barbara Dunn, who, in turn, transitioned leadership to Rose Hobson, and to Patricia Jones. Sylvia reflects on this lineage of leaders, remarking, "Four leader generations later, and we're still here playing competing at 18 thru 65 and over leagues.” Both Michael and Sylvia have had multiple trips to Sectionals, Regionals and Nationals over the years in various age and division brackets. In fact, Sylvia completed a trip to Nationals with her 55 Mixed Doubles team in Spring 2023 and won.
Over the past four decades, Sylvia and Michael have witnessed the transformation of tennis in the Mid-Atlantic. They've seen an increase in the number of leagues and more options for players across various age groups. Sylvia acknowledges the benefits of these changes, "There are so many divisions now, and no downtime. You can be playing all year round. You just have to choose wisely. We also used to have great parties at Sectionals. There was a DJ, dancing, dinner and prizes were given away. It was a great opportunity to see all the players (3.0-5.0). Of course, it was hard to recognize people dressed up in party clothes as opposed to tennis clothes!” She also noted the shift from manual rating systems to computer-based rankings and the introduction of time limits on local matches.
Their unwavering support for the USTA stems from both their love for the sport and their deep personal connection. As Michael puts it, "I have been playing since I was 9. I have gotten a lot out of tennis. I am happy to share what I've gotten out of it with others. USTA is one of the ways that I can do that." Even after retiring in 2010, Sylvia emphasizes the importance of passion in retirement, saying, "You will not survive without a passion in retirement. Have a passion; that's my mantra. We have met so many people through tennis. We travel all over the country." Both Michael and Sylvia highlighted how tennis has shaped their social circle and travel plans. For example, they were in Rome at the Italian Open in 2013 watching Federer play. Given Sylvia’s distinctive fashion style, her friends in the DC Metro Area started texting her, “We see you on TV!” They’ve also seen clips of Sylvia dancing away on the DC Kastles promotional TV ads – and also scenes from the 2018 Billie Jean King Fed Cup in Asheville. Sylvia also made an appearance on TV at the 2023 Mubadala Citi Open cheering for Michael Mmoh.
When asked what’s their wish for the next 100 years of tennis, they were quick to add: "Equal pay for men and women at tennis tournaments, get kids exposed and involved in tennis, and Tennis needs to learn to get along with Pickle Ball…and that’s a steep hill to climb for some of us” says Sylvia with a chuckle.
Inspired by this story? As part of our Centennial Celebration we are putting the spotlight on people, places, programs and the impact of tennis happening now and from the past. You can get involved by sharing your story and by joining us on December 1, 2023 to celebrate at the Centennial Gala!
This year USTA Mid-Atlantic Foundation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, is celebrating 100 years of promoting tennis and its physical, social, and emotional health benefits. Get involved and show your support for the next 100 years of tennis.