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How tennis put a spell on Nina's neighbours

By North Devon Journal  |  Posted: June 07, 2012

  • HOLDING COURT: The Koval brothers, Sam (far left) and Andy (centre), are joined by Barnstaple Tarka A team-mates (from left) Steve Jenkins, Dave Sloman and Ian Coggins. Pictures: Mike Southon. To order this photograph call 0844 4060 269 and quote Ref: BNMS20120529H-001_C

  • POISED: Dan Grigg (left) and Rob Shaw, of Westward Ho! A, were defeated by Barnstaple Tarka A's Sam Koval and Steve Jenkins in the North Devon League match. Ref: BNMS20120529H-010_C

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THEY lived next door to the singer known as the High Priestess of Soul and at school they were coached by the hero of the 1956 FA Cup Final.

But if music and football were a part of the lives of the Koval brothers during their childhood in Liberia, it is for their success in business and tennis in North Devon that they are known now.

It may seem a long time ago that Nina Simone was their neighbour and Bert Trautmann taught them football, but it is not so long as to make the Kovals too old to still play at the highest level of local tennis.

With Andy, 44, as captain, and Sam, 40, currently their best player, Barnstaple Tarka A are in the hunt to win the North Devon League's men's title after a 16-8 victory over defending champions Westward Ho! A.

Tennis, though, did not feature in the Kovals' formative years in Monrovia, the Liberian capital.

"It was a completely different lifestyle," said Sam, who now lives in East Down.

The family – mum, dad, two boys and sister Paula – lived in enviable luxury.

"Life was privileged for us," said Andy, thinking back to the ten years or so they spent in West Africa.

Now living in Northam, he added: "We lived right on the beach, with 30 coconut trees in the gardens."

Poverty, though, was close by."I remember having a huge number of friends from the shanty town at the back of where we lived and playing all sorts of games," said Sam. Games improvised out of whatever materials were available.

"I remember running down the street with the metal inner wheel of a bike, pushing it with a stick, because that is what the kids in the shanty town did," said Sam.

Houseboys (male servants) were part of home life. "They were grown men and you had a driver and guard at the end of the driveway," said Sam.

Andy added: "We would walk through the swamps with the houseboys and their kids, sometimes eating with them in their village."

Nina Simone, the American soul icon best known for songs such as I Put A Spell On You, Ain't Got No/I Got Life and My Baby Just Cares For Me holds a particular memory for Sam. As does Trautmann.

Trautmann was the German goalkeeper who, playing for Manchester City in the 1956 FA Cup Final, broke his neck with his team 3-1 up against Birmingham City.

Unaware of the extent of his injury, and before the days of substitutes, he played on, making several crucial saves.

"I have two memories of Nina Simone," said Sam. "One is going round to her house and having an orange juice and the other is of my father talking to her over a wall with a snake near his leg before somebody ran out and killed it.

"Our other claim to fame was the German goalkeeper who broke his neck – he was our games teacher at school."

In the 1930s Trautmann had joined the Hitler Youth movement and was indoctrinated into the views of the Nazi party.

However, he learned the truth of the regime while in prison, after being captured during the Second World War. Reassessing his views, he stayed on in England after his release.

When he signed for City in 1949, such was the continuing anti-Nazi fervour that 20,000 fans protested on the streets, some returning their season tickets.

But Trautmann won hearts in the end, making more than 500 appearances for City and earning an OBE for promoting Anglo-German relations.

After managing in England, Trautmann coached the national teams of Burma, Tanzania, Liberia and Pakistan.

Andy, who would go on to play for Barnstaple Town before concentrating on tennis, recalled Trautmann's spell at the British Independent School that he and his brother attended.

"Bert was coaching the Liberian national team and was asked to do some coaching at the school," said Andy.

Sport, though, was not the biggest part of their lives back then.

"We had no tennis in our family – it was music," said Sam.

"I used to play the piano and clarinet, my sister played the flute and my brother the saxophone, but that all went when we started playing tennis."

That was after they left Liberia and arrived in North Devon to live with their mother, Chris, and stepfather, John Walsh, a county tennis player.

"There was a military coup at the end of the Seventies and we were forced out," said Sam.

Sam had been born in Chatham, Kent, Andy in Manchester, and they went to boarding school in Eastbourne upon their return from Liberia.

Their mother and father, Peter, had separated and when Chris and John settled in North Devon the boys joined them.

"John was such a lovely guy that we all got involved in tennis and he helped coach us," said Sam.

"There was a big community feeling at the local tennis club at Ashleigh Road so, as a family, we went there."

Andy added: "Tennis became part of our life because it was so much a part of his life. I must have been about 14 and Sam about 10 when we started."

Success followed in father-and-son tournaments, although they were barred from a national event when organisers ruled that the boys were too close in age to their stepfather.

"John was only 14 or 15 years older than me and there was uproar that I was only his stepson and we should not be in the tournament," said Andy."They brought in a rule that there had to be 20 years' difference so we were not allowed to enter in the following years.

"But there was another tournament that did not have a rule so Sam and I used to alternate with John.

"I can't recall how many times we won it between us but it must have been eight or nine."

John died in 2007, aged 54, prompting Andy to re-evaluate the intensity of his work in the property business.

Now a 50 per cent owner of the Midwinter Koval letting company in Barnstaple, he cut back his hours.

"My stepfather was a partner in an accountant's worrying about how he was going to cope and he never made it," said Andy. "He died of a heart attack while out jogging."

Andy described his letting company as "probably the largest in the West Country", with 650 properties.

"When I had my first company, North Devon Property Letting (which merged with Perry's Estate Agents to create Midwinter Koval), I worked seven days a week," said Andy."Although I do not do the same hours as I did, my quality of work is much better."

He brings the same drive to his tennis as he does to business.

"I love competition," he said."Getting the property is the most important thing, I am not money orientated. It's the same playing tennis – I run shots down."

Having helped Ashleigh Road to numerous North Devon titles, the Kovals switched to Tarka after the centre was built in 2003.

So, too, did Steve Jenkins, who partnered Sam to victory in both their matches against Westward Ho! while Andy sat out injured.

The experience of Koval and Jenkins, 39, proved too strong for promising teenagers Lewie Parker, 16, and Matt Johns, 17, earning a 6-1, 6-4 win at the Tarka Centre.

Rob Shaw and Dan Grigg, for the visiting team, defeated Ian Coggins and Dave Sloman 6-2, 0-6, 10-3, the decider taking the form of an extended tie-break.

Parker and Johns beat Coggins and Sloman 4-6, 6-3, 10-5 but a 6-3, 6-3 win for Koval and Jenkins over Shaw and Grigg in the best of the four matches, with numerous good rallies, ensured that Tarka took 16 points and Westward Ho! 8.

It was Westward Ho!'s first league defeat for two seasons after they won all 12 matches last year and their first two of this campaign.

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