Best friends Tony Sanneh and Manny Lagos were turning 11 years old and talking about what to get each other for their respective birthdays. Already skilled soccer and basketball players (they both went on to play professional soccer all over the world), the youngsters thought it would be cool to buy each other tennis racquets so when they did have a few minutes away from the soccer pitch or the basketball court, they could play tennis with each other.
“It was around the time Boris Becker won Wimbledon,” Sanneh, who was born to an Gambian father and American mother, said. “He was so cool to watch and everyone was really excited about tennis at that time, so we thought we would give it a try in our spare time.”
The duo, who attended St. Paul Academy and Summit School in St. Paul, Minn., soon loved tennis and decided to try out for the team in eighth grade as a way to train during the off-season from soccer and basketball. They ended up playing at the top of the line-up that year, although Sanneh admits, it was his athletic ability and not his tennis skills which led to his success.
In ninth grade, Sanneh and Lagos ran track, but Sanneh learned quickly that track was not for him and returned to the tennis courts his sophomore year. He started the season on the junior varsity roster, but moved to the varsity after challenging his way up the ladder. His junior and senior seasons, he played #1 doubles and earned team most valuable player honors.
“I knew I wasn’t the best player as I had never taken a lesson in my life,” Sanneh said. “My coach, Mel Carter, told me ‘Just get the ball back and rely on your athletic ability.’ I did that and had pretty good success.”
It was that athletic ability that, ironically, took Sanneh away from the tennis courts and permanently to the soccer field as he received a scholarship to “bend it” at UW-Milwaukee. There, he became the school’s all-time leading scorer and was a second-team All-American in 1993.
He then signed professionally with the United States Indoor Soccer League’s Milwaukee Rampage and played on a number of professional teams, including the Minnesota Thunder (with his childhood friend and college teammate Lagos). Finally in 1996, the 6-foot-2 striker received his big break signing with DC United during Major League Soccer’s (MLS) inaugural season. He scored goals in the first two MLS Cups, leading DC United to consecutive championships.
During his time with the United, Sanneh also made his debut with the U.S. National Team against China in 1997, but just missed making the 1998 United States FIFA World Cup Team. Finally in 2002, Sanneh was named to the U.S. World Cup team, where he was one of the best American players in the tournament in leading the U.S. to the quarterfinals and its best finish since 1930.
Sanneh finished his National team time playing in 43 caps and then returned to the MLS, where he finally hung up his cleats in 2009, recording 16 goals and 27 assists in his career.
Once retired, Sanneh started his own soccer camp system in the Midwest and U.S. Virgin Islands and founded his own non-profit called The Sanneh Foundation, which shows urban youth in the Twin Cities how soccer can play a role in promoting a more stable and inclusive community while providing an alternative to anti-social behavior. His organization also assists recovery efforts in Haiti – a place that is very near and dear to Sanneh. Recently, the Foundation received the International Sports Programming Initiative Award from the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs to design and implement a transformative two-way educational and cultural exchange program between the U.S. and Haiti. These exchanges emphasize soccer as a tool to promote mutual understanding, social cohesion and female empowerment for youth and community coaches in Haiti.
His soccer camps and Foundation flourishing, Sanneh found himself looking for something that would get him back into shape, but be easy on his worn-down body from all those years of soccer. He went to a tennis drill and found it was not too hard on his tender knees. Soon after, he met USTA League Captain Jeanne Ewen at a drop-in drill. The two started talking and she invited him to play mixed doubles on her 7.0 and 8.0 teams.
“Tennis has been a great workout for me both physically and mentally,” Sanneh said. “In soccer, you can hide amongst your teammates when you get tired, but in tennis it is just you and, maybe, a partner. There is no hiding. That has been the hardest part for me, staying mentally in the match 100 percent of the time, and not getting lazy by relying only on my athletic ability.”
He is definitely not hiding from his opponents, posting an impressive 13-2 record during the fall and winter seasons. Sanneh admits he has a long way to go skill-wise in order to become a competitive 4.0 singles player, but he also possesses many of the intangibles you cannot teach – a carry-over from his high school tennis and pro soccer days.
“I am a pretty unorthodox player,” Sanneh admits. “I am a good athlete, and I still like to win a little too much, so I just put the ball in play and try to place it where they aren’t. Now, my goal is to push myself in developing my skills and technique and become a better tennis player, not just a good athlete.”
He realizes playing tennis again has made him grow personally as well. Sanneh has had to go outside of his comfort zone by meeting new people with different backgrounds and interests. It also has been challenging not knowing all the nuances of tennis, like he does with soccer, and playing as an individual rather than in a team setting. He has also encountered a few other surprises along the way.
“Probably the biggest lesson has been you never truly know about your opponent. On the outside, they may not appear to be a great athlete, but they have certain skills they do very well which can give them the advantage. It has definitely provided me a more inclusive way of thinking about people. Playing tennis again has been a really good experience for me.”