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Guardians of the Game: Fiji's unlikely doubles team

Two men sit outside on a bench in front of a blue concrete wall.
Fijian Tennis Development Officers Max and Lai.

ABC: Aaron Kearney

Two security guards who spent half a decade watching tennis before daring to pick up a racquet are now in charge of making sure the next generation of Fijians never have to wait to hit a ball.

For five years, they watched over and protected Fiji's most precious tennis courts and not once did they pick up a racquet or hit a single ball.

"I saw everyone play but I didn't know what tennis was," says Laisiasa Qiolevu, known to all as "Lai".

A young child balances a tennis ball on a racquet. A man standing behind the child points.
Lai oversees a clinic at the Topline community in Lautoka.

ABC: Aaron Kearney

Eventually, one night, for reasons unclear, these two security guards who had watched thousands of people hit millions of balls at Fiji's National Tennis Centre plucked up the courage to step onto the court.

"I started to just hit and I could see that it is fun," says Lemeki Veimateyaki, or "Max" as he is universally known.

Tennis administrators saw that they could hit and saw that they found it fun. With the assistance of Australian Aid, Max and Lai were offered a chance to train as tennis development officers.

"I said 'Ok, I think I can do this for the kids'," Max recalls of that moment more than a year ago.

A man standing outside in bright sunshine holds temporary lines to mark a tennis court.
Max lays out the temporary lines at Ba School for Special Education.

ABC: Aaron Kearney

Further training has followed — the pair have even had to obtain driving licences. The unlikely turn of events has not only converted security guards into tennis tutors, it has given tennis development a whole new face in Fiji.

Unlike many coaches who can't remember a time when they didn't play their sport, this pair can relate to the children's awe and intimidation at taking on a new and unfamiliar sport.

"The first time I went to the communities and the villages, there was a kind of staring," Max says.

"They were asking me 'What's this? What are we going to do? Are we going to play volleyball just with a small net?'

"The next time when I came around, they just came out ready."

Lai has had a similar experience.

"Some of them say, 'We've never tried tennis before'," he says.

"Many of them don't know what tennis is. I just say, 'Let's start'.

"After the game they tell me, 'Come back again'."

An outdoor close-up portrait of a man in front of a fence.
President of Tennis Fiji Richard Breen.

ABC: Aaron Kearney

President of Tennis Fiji Richard Breen, who has been integral to the pair's progress, admits they are a source of pride and inspiration.

"It's not just the people who are the recipients of the programs they run, but [Lai and Max's] lives have changed [too]," he says.

"They really enjoy the roles that they do and certainly do it with a lot of pride.

"It's rewarding for us to see we have helped these guys who perhaps didn't have as many opportunities before. We just hope this is the beginning of what is going to be a long journey."

A man outside demonstrates a tennis stroke. A child watches from behind.
Max offers tips at Topline community in Lautoka.

ABC: Aaron Kearney

Their roles are not yet full-time. Max and Lai still spend their share of time looking after the tennis centre, as groundskeepers and maintenance men, in between forays into villages and schools. But having discovered tennis so late in life themselves, they are determined to introduce the game into the remotest corners of Fiji, and while they know they will never play Centre Court at Wimbledon, they have high hopes they will be the ones to discover a Fijian tennis champion.

"My dream is: I want one of the kids to be in the glamour," Lai says.

"If Fiji can do it in rugby, they can do it in tennis."

Max is convinced it is not a matter of if, but when.

"One day. It will be."

If he's right, the man or woman who holds that trophy aloft will do so because two humble, quiet security guards one day decided they'd have a hit.

A young girl and a man hold the same tennis racquet.
Max offers forehand advice at Ba School for Special Education.

ABC: Aaron Kearney

This story was produced by ABC International Development as part of the Pacific Sports Partnerships funded by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

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