In the upheaval that has engulfed Nigerian football over the weeks since the end of the World Cup, it is easy to overlook the modest achievement of table tennis star Aruna Quadri. The 30-year-old became the first Nigerian to win the ITTF Challenge Nigeria Open title in front of a fiercely supportive crowd inside the Molade Okoya-Thomas Hall, Teslim Balogun Stadium, Lagos, on August 12. It was a moment to enjoy as the world number 18 defeated Frenchman Antoine Hachard 4-2 in an energetic encounter that left many breathless.
The crowd cheered every winner served by Aruna and literally pushed him across the line. After a series of disappointing outings in previous years, they finally had something to be happy about. Aruna lost the final to Egypt’s Omar Assar in 2015 but ensured to bring joy to the hearts of his passionate supporters this year. The title was added to his Polish Open victory last year when he became the first African player to win outside of the continent.
The rabid support that Aruna draws among the Lagos crowd is a sign of what can be achieved by sports outside football. Hundreds of fans wore t-shirts bearing his image and chanted praise at his every move. Several journalists wanted interviews with him but his schedule would not allow it, so the tournament organisers decided to give him a solo press conference in an attempt to satisfy the horde. He came across as a very humble man. He thanked the media for the positive reportage and support he had received before welcoming questions.
I asked him about the challenges that his sport faces in Nigeria and how to improve the talent base. Like many other sports people outside of football, Aruna laid the problem of smaller sports on the doorstep of the juggernaut. If table tennis receives 20 percent of the funding given to football, there will be a boom and talents will be able to be nurtured into world standard, he said.
The victory of Aruna coincides with the rise in profile of the Nigeria Open. From 2019, the Nigeria Open will be elevated from an ITTF Challenge tournament to the new Challenge Plus series rating. Africa’s leading table tennis tournament will receive a higher prize money and be able to attract more players in the top 150. This will also mean more ranking points that would ensure that top quality players come around to Lagos.
A coach who led a team of players for the first time from Thailand to Lagos told me that he was satisfied with the level of competition. The women’s number 1 seed, Sawettabut Suthasini was knocked out by a Chinese player in the quarter-finals as China dominated the women’s event while Supanut Wisutmaythangkoon lost in the men’s semis to eventual winner Aruna. The coach said he would make a presentation on their return to Bangkok in hopes that more Thai players will come next year
There were several returnees to the Nigeria Open this year while many made their debuts in Lagos. An Italian player, Debora Vivarelli, told me she was impressed by the energy of the spectators in such a small hall. English player Sam Walker spoke about how he was drawn to Lagos because of the reputation of the crowd. 2016 men’s singles winner, Benedek Olah of Finland, also spoke glowingly of the Lagos audience. Ahead of his semi-final clash with Hachard, Scottish player, Gavin Rumgay, bought over the support of the crowd after he shared some of his memorabilia. Even though he lost, he was cheered on till the end. It all attested to the unique atmosphere offered by the Lagos table tennis crowd.
Yet, apart from Aruna, there was not much else to cheer for the other Nigerian players who could not get past the round of 16. There is an obvious need to raise the level of domestic talent that it may be able to challenge against international players. While the Nigeria Open is bringing international talent to play on our shores, there is a need for greater exposure of Nigerian players. Regular competitions and travel will ensure that they can be better prepared.
One also sees the need to improve accessibility of the sport to the wider public by investing in table tennis equipment in public spaces and schools. Table tennis is a social sport, tables in a neighbourhood will bring out young people who will try their hands at the sport. This can then be backed by coaching to find the best young talents who come through.
The success of Aruna can be replicated across the country in several places. There needs to be a deliberate process of ensuring that the sport is accessible in order to grow its talent base as well as its popularity.