Tennis is one of the few sports Nigeria has not managed to break into the global top 10 rankings. Apart from Nduka Odizor, who went as far as the fourth round of the 1983 Wimbledon Championship, no Nigerian player ever has done anything of note in the grand slam of the sport that continues to captivate ardent fans in Nigeria whenever the big championships come up.
Such icons as David Imonitie, Tony Mmoh, Yakubu Suleiman, Sadiq Abubakar, Godwin Kienka, Rolake Olagbegi, Jonathan Igbinovia, Veronica Oyibokia and Esther Isibor (nee Onyekwelu), among others, once had the country dreaming of joining tennis big league, but they never managed to get to that stage.
Since the exit of these icons, Nigeria has not raised stars good enough to challenge the elite of the African game, let alone joining the global stage. But there seems to be fresh hope that at last, the country has someone, who has the potential to become a world star given her current development trajectory.
Oyinlomo Quadri is just 17, but she has already become Nigeria’s number one women player. The Kwara State-born teenager, who grew up in Yaba’s Herbert Macaulay Street, Lagos Mainland axis, has graduated from dominating the West African junior circuit to be one of the rising stars of African tennis. Now, she has her eyes firmly fixed on becoming the first black African woman, born and raised in the continent to compete at the highest stage of the sport.
Just like her idol, Serena Williams, Quadri started playing the game, when as a four-year-old, she accompanied her older sister to training sessions.
She told The Guardian, “Growing up, I was really attached to my sister and I followed her to train at a place called Akagbe, right in front of City Mall and not so far from Lagos Lawn Tennis Club where my dad had a sports shop.
“Back at Akagbe, my sister’s coach watched me and I guess he saw how much I loved being on the court and how much I enjoyed picking balls for my sister and learning from her. He encouraged me to start playing for 30 minutes, initially to develop my skills.
“Later, the coach and my dad became members of Lagos Lawn Tennis club, so things became much easier for me because I could just practice and train with him. The facilities in the club were better than what we had in Akagbe. They had standard courts, which meant I could play on better courts and for as long as I wanted to. It was easier for me to combine school with tennis because, at that point, my routine was from school to the club and back home.”
With her parents’ support, Quadri has been working on her dream of one-day meeting and surpassing the grand slam records set by Serena Williams, who she rates as the greatest women tennis player of all time.
She said, “My parents have always told me that I could beat Serena Williams and so when I played alone, I would usually imagine I was playing in the grand slam against Serena.
“My dad sees how hard I work to train and be better and my mom is always supportive of me. There have been times I would be sad and cry after a match and I would call them. I am always grateful for their support. I think parents should be more supportive of their children’s dreams because it is very important.”
Quadri initially played only in the Lagos circuits and was not known outside the city. But she got her breakthrough when she played at a U-16 tournament at the age of nine and made it to the finals.
“That was when I got noticed,” she continued. “Shortly after this, I was invited to represent Nigeria in a tournament in Abuja where I beat the champion. After that, I went to the African Junior Championship (AJC) qualifiers for West Africa in Abuja and I won the qualifiers and then proceeded to the main AJCs for Africa, which was in Tunisia and I made it to quarterfinals where I lost.
“The following year, I played AJC qualifiers and won again and I made sure to play at other tournaments before playing at the main AJC. I played in the Benin Republic and in Togo in the Under-18 circuits when I was 13 years old and I gained more CAT points before I played in the semi-finals. When I was only 12 years old, I entered Africa’s top eight list, which qualified me for the top eight Africa Masters Championship.”
Quadri said playing in big tournaments has aided her development, explaining; “My mentor at the time, the late Chris Enahoro, wanted me to go to an academy. I was at a tournament when I was asked if I would want to attend the high-performance Centre in Morocco. It was the best option for me because it is an ITF certified centre. The Nigeria Tennis Federation also trusts them to deliver results, as we have had some Nigerians who also went to the centre. So, when the opportunity came, we took it immediately.”
Quadri is not just the country’s number one women tennis player, but she is also the only Nigerian in the top 100 juniors ranking. And she says being the country’s number one ranked player at age 17 has motivated her to seek higher challenges.
She said; “I like to remind myself what I have been able to achieve and see it as a way of making more improvements. So, I just try to keep my mind focused on being better till I am the best there is. I am Nigeria’s number one women tennis player now, but I would like to be number one in Africa and the world.
“For as long as I can remember, I have worked hard at achieving the goals I set for myself. I won ITF juniors Under-18 when I was 13 years old, and at that point, I was the youngest in the world with that ranking. So, I think my biggest motivation is to do better than my best accomplishments and beat my best records. And I am blessed because I am surrounded by people who encourage me to be better and support me.”
Ouadri, who says she has been following Roger Federer since she became aware of the game, believes the former world number one male player has all the qualities that make the game very easy.
According to her, “Since I was little, I have always seen Federer as an inspiration. He has managed to make tennis look easy and his calmness is almost contagious. I am still aspiring to reach that level of calmness at some point. Also, I have always admired Serena Williams. One goal I have always wanted to accomplish is to beat Serena Williams’ grand slam record and I hope I can still do that soon.”
Outside tennis, Quadri has a passion for aiding the vulnerable in the society, which she does through her foundation, Fusion Foundation.
“It is something my siblings and I set up as a way of giving back to society,” she said. “Right from when I was younger, I have always been close to tennis ball boys and I see some of them struggle with things like food and even clothes.
“Whenever I see them, I ask what tournaments they have played in and most times they have not had the opportunity to play and it just breaks my heart. This was my inspiration to set up the foundation, to help the ball boys develop themselves and give them the opportunity to be recognised for their talents. It is something my siblings and I do together and we are hoping to get sponsorships from individuals and organisations, too.”
According to Quadri, the biggest obstacle to Nigeria’s tennis development is the lack of sponsorship and inadequate tournaments, adding; “I think tennis is underrated; it is hard to get sponsorships. I think the federation should work on getting sponsorships so there can be more tournaments for players to develop themselves in.
“Many players in Nigeria only wait for the major tournaments like CBN and after that, they just hang their rackets till the following year. Another thing is, I do not think tennis players are celebrated in Nigeria. There is no recognition unlike some other sports. If the federation can work on these, I think it would be a good starting point.”