PORT HARCOURT, November 30, 2017 - “I know that if I do well, it is my name that will be mentioned.”
Those were words from Nigeria’s table tennis super star, Quadri Aruna as he explained to AIPS what drives him to succeed in a sport that still struggles for adequate support and attention in his football-crazy country.
In spite of that lingering challenge, the 29-year-old trailblazer still finds a way of keeping his exclusive list of firsts up-to-date. Only last month he became the first Nigerian to win an International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) title at the 2017 ITTF Challenge Series Polish Open and, by extension, the first African player to win such a title outside the continent. He beat Japan’s Kaii Yoshida in six games (11-7, 11-13, 11-8, 6-11, 11-8, 14-12) to achieve the feat.
It was therefore no surprise that he picked that victorious moment in the city of Czestochowa as his highlight of the year.
“I must acknowledge that it [my high point] was winning the Polish Open having lost in the round of 16 of the Nigeria Open,” Aruna admitted to AIPS. “This showed that with determination and hard work, one can achieve whatever you put your mind at. As the number one seed at the Polish Open, it was a befitting honour to win. It was my cherished moment this year.”
Aruna then referred to his exit from the 2017 ITTF Challenge Series Nigeria Open in August as his low point of the season. In spite of being the tournament’s number one seed, he was stunned by his compatriot Bode Abiodun 4-2 (9-11, 11-7, 5-11, 10-12, 11-9, 11-9) in the Round of 16 and continues his wait for an ITTF title in his home country.
“It was painful but that is sports for you,” the ITTF-Africa Cup champion confessed. “But that defeat inspired me to go all out at the Bulgaria Open where I got to the semi-final. So, for me, losing any match is meant to inspire you to work harder.”
In the men’s singles event at the 2017 ITTF World Tour Asarel Bulgaria Open in Panagyurishte, Aruna put up a top drawer performance in his semi-final loss to the eventual winner, Germany’s Dimitrij Ovtcharov. In the thrilling encounter which was described as the “match of the tournament”, top seed Ovtcharov, recovered from a three games to one deficit to beat Aruna, who was the no.3 seed, 4-3 (11-6, 9-11, 8-11, 8-11, 11-4, 11-8, 11-6) in seven games.
When the 2017 ITTF World Cup came around in October in Ličge, Belgium, Aruna went past the group stage but crashed out in the Round of 16. However the prestigious tournament is one that holds a historic significance in the 29-year-old’s career. Three years ago in Düsseldorf, Germany, he took the world by storm as he became the first player from Africa to reach the quarter-final stage. That moment shot him to international reckoning and he was named ITTF Star Player of the year 2014.
The year 2016 also came with its own moment of glory in the Men’s Singles event at the Rio Olympics, and against all expectations Quadri Aruna reached the last eight. A first for Africa.
So, what has been the highlight of his career so far? “Making it to the quarterfinal of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games in Brazil, winning the world best player in 2014 and playing alongside the best in the world,” Aruna said.
Aruna opened a new chapter for Africa at this season’s European Champions League as a representative of Portuguese champions, Sporting Clube De Portugal, becoming the first player from the continent to play at the tournament.
Although they have been dominating in Portugal, this is Sporting CP’s debut in the most important continental tournament for clubs in European table tennis and they are close to sealing a quarter-final berth from Group A, which will be another first for Aruna, Nigeria and Africa.
They have two more matches to play in the group stage; an away tie against bottom-placed K.S. Dartom Bogoria on November 30 and a home meeting on December 20 against holders TTC Fakel Gazprom, who are unbeaten and have already progressed to the quarter-final.
Ranked 27th in the world, Aruna has so far contributed two wins in five matches for his club in the tournament. His latest victory came against one of Europe’s highly-rated players, Marcos Freitas, of France’s AS Pontoise Cergy - who is ten places above him in the world rankings.
This is how Aruna summarises his year so far: “2017 has been an eventful year for me and I must appreciate God for the strength and ability He gave to me to achieve all I have been able to do this year.
“I am grateful to God for keeping me throughout the year. It was early in the year I had back injury but I was told to rest which I did and from then, I played without any injury. I think this is another blessing.
“I must also acknowledge that I got a major boost this year with the sponsorship by PremierBet alias Baba Ijebu. This alone has given me hope that a Nigerian firm finally identified with me. I am so happy with all my performances this season.”
Quadri Aruna will not feature at the 2017 ITTF World Tour Grand Finals which will take place on 14-17 December in Astana, Kazakhstan, but he is not disappointed.
“I am not disappointed because I did not have enough resources to attend tournaments and I hope next year I can add it to my goals in 2018.”
A player must have competed in a minimum of five 2017 ITTF World Tour tournaments to qualify for the 2017 ITTF World Tour Grand Finals. Quadri just has four to his name. It would also surprise you to know that even world number one and defending champion, Ma Long will also be missing from the ITTF’s most lucrative tournament.
Aruna has his sights set on dwarfing his history-making achievements and he has told AIPS that he would continue to play as long as his body can carry him. If the legendary Segun Toriola’s longevity in the sport is anything to go by, then the world should anticipate even more greatness from Aruna.
According to him, the backing from his latest sponsors PremierBet - a betting firm that has signed him up to a three-year deal worth $75,000 - will enable him attend more competitions in Europe as he prepares for Tokyo 2020.
Reflecting on what table tennis has given him, Aruna said: “Table tennis has given me everything I can think of. Travelling, meeting my wife (Ganiat) and an opportunity to live outside Nigeria. I cannot quantify what the sport has given me. It has made my life better and opened doors for me.”
To this end, Aruna understands the need to also invest in the lives of younger table tennis players in the country. He was recently instrumental to Italy-based Olajide Omotayo securing a five-year deal with a Germany-based kits manufacturing firm – Gewo.
The father of three, whose wife is also a professional table tennis player, will however not impose the sport on his kids, “but I will encourage them to do sports because it is good for healthy living in life,” he said.
China currently occupy four spots in the top ten of the ITTF current ranking list for men and five in that of the women. And Aruna believes their dominance in table tennis is because, “they have everything at their disposal. They never lack anything and their government supports them 100 percent. They are surrounded by experienced and quality coaches. They only need to play table tennis not thinking of where the next meal will come from. They are also supported by companies in China.”
November, 2017 has seen Quadri Aruna being recognised twice in eight days. He was first named Sportsman of the Year at the 2017 Nigeria Sports Award gala on the 17th before he was honoured as one of the most outstanding sportsmen of 2017 on the 25th by a Nigerian national newspaper, the New Telegraph.
Follow Chibuogwu Nnadiegbulam on Twitter @Chibuogwu_N