Australian Open Inspires Pacific Tennis Pioneer
Ian Honila's tennis journey has taken him from the Solomon Islands to the Australian Open, first as a junior player and now as a guide and coach to a new generation of Pacific youngsters. Next, he's moving to Vanuatu to help develop the sport there and oversee a new program that encourages female participation in tennis and addresses inequalities experienced by women and girls.
While the Australian Open represents a pathway to grand slam glory for the world's top stars, for young hopefuls from the Pacific who are taking their first steps in the sport, a visit to Melbourne Park can be the start of a life-changing journey in tennis.
As a teenager, Ian Honila from the Solomon Islands was one of those youngsters, playing a sport relatively unknown in his homeland but dreaming big. In 2005, he was invited to take part in the Margaret Court Cup in Albury against Australian juniors and other emerging regional talent. The visit included a trip to the Australian Open, which cemented his commitment to the sport.
"Coming to the Australian Open for the first time, wow, it was just such an eye-opener for me," he reflects. "It's a wonderful place to experience tennis. Getting to experience that, I felt like I had to make a commitment to myself to introduce tennis to lots of kids in the Pacific, so I got into coaching. This sport has changed me, big time, and now that I'm coaching, I just love it."
In 2019 Ian was back at Melbourne Park, this time as a coach and guide to a cohort of up and coming Oceania junior tennis stars who are following in his footsteps.
"We've got kids from Fiji, Solomon Islands, Tuvalu, Cook Islands, Tahiti, Saipan and Guam," he explains. "They're the best of the Pacific in the under 12 and under 14 age groups, but they travel here without their parents so I'm their coach, tour guide, friend and guardian. It makes sense to me, helping these players find their journey. Coming to the Australian Open is a wonderful feeling for me, and it has inspired them."
Ian's next move is to Vanuatu, where he will play a key role in developing coaches and introducing a new program that encourages female participation in tennis, and uses the sport to address inequalities experienced by women and girls.
The Game, Set, Respect program has been developed by Tennis Australia in partnership with Tennis Vanuatu, Tennis Fiji and World Vision. It is supported by the Australian Government through the Pacific Sports Partnerships and is now being piloted in Vanuatu and Fiji.
The program aims to support girls to embrace and persist with tennis, and one day represent Vanuatu at the Australian Open. It also seeks to address the barriers faced by young Pacific women in tennis, and foster community knowledge about healthy lifestyle choices, respectful and positive relationships, and empowering female leaders.
"Tennis is not really huge in the Pacific, but I'm positive it's growing," admits Ian. "With the amount of data people have on their phones thesedays, I'm pretty sure they are following the Australian Open.
"I try to inspire kids by telling them it's the best sport because you don't have a team around you, and you have to learn to make decisions by yourself. When we set up a tennis program, the kids come and grab a racket and, if they enjoy it, they come back the next day, and the numbers keep increasing. They just love it and they want to take part."