Host country opens arms for Malawian tennis player

Mphatso Chiphwanya from Malawi and U.S. athlete Jeffrey Scott react to U.S. tennis coach Ryan Ruch who is hiding a shirt for Chiphwanya behind his back. The U.S. team unofficially adopted the only Special Olympics athlete from Malawi. Tim Rasmussen/ESPN

LOS ANGELES -- Just past 8 o'clock on Thursday morning, the Malawian Special Olympics tennis team walks onto a court for practice. It is a team of one: Mphatso Chiphwanya.

Chiphwanya, 19, has long black braids that graze her lower back. A few are streaked with her country's colors, red and green, the same colors painted on her fingernails. She is a proud Malawian and well known in the city of Blantyre, where she lives with her parents and two younger sisters. "Back home, everyone is like, 'Mphatso! Mphatso!' wherever she goes," says her coach, Regina Dembo. "Usually the greeting is a high-five and then she hugs them."

Today, however, Chiphwanya looks unsure of herself and her place in this scene. Dembo is not on the court with her; she had to attend a coach's meeting. Instead, Chiphwanya has come to practice with the American team. She is a few minutes late and they are already in full swing, running drills in four groups around the perimeter.

The U.S. team only has a half-hour of court time before today's matches begin, and with 17 athletes and four coaches buzzing to and fro, space is tight. Chiphwanya seems to sense this as she approaches.

Suddenly assistant coach Mary Moore spots her and runs over to give her a hug. That is all it takes to draw out Chiphwanya's personality and smile. She drops her guard and joins a footwork drill run by another assistant, Ryan Ruch. Before long, Ruch is giving her one-on-one instruction at the net, bouncing a ball to her right and left as she shuffles back and forth, her mop of braids bouncing like the ball.

"Stay with it," he says. "Don't slow down on me."

Chiphwanya's unlikely relationship with the U.S. team began last Sunday, when Dembo informed tournament volunteer Tasha Graziani that she had to run to a meeting and was going to leave Chiphwanya in the control room for a few minutes. Graziani, who knew Ruch from working together at Special Olympics events in New Jersey, thought Ruch might have room for the Malawian to practice with his team, so she took Chiphwanya down to the court. Practice was just wrapping up, but Ruch rallied with her for a few minutes afterward and saw how much she appreciated the chance to hit (not to mention her snappy forehand and two-handed backhand).

"We just made her part of our family," Ruch said. "She's been with us every morning since."

According to Dembo, Chiphwanya is the only Special Olympics tennis player in all of Malawi, so it's hard for her to find playing partners. The U.S. team's unofficial adoption of Chiphwanya solved that problem at the World Games, where the tennis matches are taking place at UCLA.

"It's different when you practice with other athletes compared with just your coach," Dembo said. "You feel like you're in the game, like it's real."

Chiphwanya has become a pseudo celebrity since she arrived. She hugs the bus drivers and sings songs that she makes up as she goes, all to the same tune. "I love tennis" is a standard chorus, but when a few players from Germany's men's volleyball team cheered her on during a match, she serenaded them with "I love Germanies" afterward.

She lost her first three matches that day before winning her finale, which sent her into a celebration that lasted much of the afternoon. "That's when everyone fell in love with her, because everyone got a hug," said Mary McPherson, a volunteer from Maryland who is serving as the delegate liaison for Malawi.

Said Chiphwanya, "My parents tell me that love is when a person comes and tells you, 'I love you,' and they care about you and they respect you. Sometimes you really need to focus on that if you want to do things on your own."

Of course, she hasn't had to do everything on her own this week, thanks to the U.S. team. After practice ends Thursday morning, Ruch gathers the players in a circle near the net and invites Chiphwanya to send them off with their trademark chant. They put their hands on hers as she counts, "1, 2, 3," then they all exclaim, "Tennis!"

But Ruch is not finished. He grabs a team jersey from his bag and presents it to the Americans' adopted Malawian teammate. "We want to make you an honorary team member," he says.

Chiphwanya leaps in the air like a rocket ship, incredulous. "USA!" she shouts.

Later, Ruch says, "We had to guess on the size, but it fit perfectly. That's kind of the theme of this whole thing. It fit perfectly."