Quadri sets sights on better days in Tokyo
Purists argue that stars are born, but refined by constant exposure to hard times. Such difficult times toughen the jewels, who rise above their peers to command special positions in the galaxy. They count hard work, perseverance and urge to do better than their peers as the stock in trade.
In football, there is a Cristiano Ronaldo, who despite being among the most talented players of his generation, is also noted for his hard work and quest for excellence. In tennis, Rafael Nadal is noted for his ability to rise above more talented players through hard work and the innate push for success no matter how lowly rated the glory is.
In table tennis, Aruna Quadri is easily recognised as the boy who has risen above all the obstacles that the Nigerian system threw at him to become one of the most recognisable faces in the world circuit. Up until 1996, Quadri was the little known Oyo boy, who lived on competitions among his peers, seeking every opportunity to show Nigerians that he could be as good as his idol, Segun Toriola, who was then the number one player in Africa.
Quadri’s star started shining brightly when he moved to Lagos in 2005, where he was exposed to more competitions and better facilities in the game he saw as the gateway out of poverty. Today, Quadri is ranked among the first 26 players in the world. He is counted among the best draws in a sport that is dominated by Asians.
No Nigerian has gone to the semifinals of the Olympics in Table Tennis, but Quadri says it is achievable if all the elements worked in his favour in Tokyo.Discovered in Oyo by the legendary Oluwole Abolarin, Quadri recalls his early days in the game: “Growing up in Oyo Town was not that bad as my romance with table tennis started in 1996.
“We were just playing for fun as my parents wanted me to go to school. However, when other children chose football, I was always on the table. “Fortunately for me, there was a table tennis hall close to my house and I was fond of going there to play. I later discovered that Oluwole Abolarin owned the six tables. The man took interest in me and started to coach me. It was under him that I first began to play in a hall because I used to play outdoors.
“Abolarin saw the talent in me and always told me that I will rule the game in near future.”Quadri’s first foray in a national competition happened in 2000, when he featured in a tournament. As predicted by Abolarin, he stunned some of the top cadet players to win the tournament.
Rather than boosting his career, the victory in Lagos almost put paid to his romance with table tennis, as his parents tried to stop him from playing the game. They believed that the sport was affecting his education, negatively. But with pressure from Abolarin, who became his coach, his parents allowed him to continue in the sport with a promise that he would pay as much attention to his education as he did table tennis.
“My parents were against my involvement in sports because they wanted me to face my studies. But I was not bothered by their indifference to my love for table tennis.“However, I knew I had to take my education seriously because I wanted to make my parents happy,” he said.
His breakthrough was soon to come when his performance in another competition made headlines across the country and forced his parents to start encouraging his association with table tennis.In 2007, Quadri’s talents caught the eyes of then national team handlers led by national coach, Babatunde Obisanya, who invited him to the camp ahead of the 2007 African Championship. This paved way for him to cement his place in the senior national team.
“When I was invited to the national team in 2007 after winning some national tournaments, I knew it was an opportunity to cement my place in the team,” he said.From the first appearance in 2007, Quadri became the star of the national team. In 2009, he became the African champion and was chosen to represent the continent at the World Cup.
The competition was an eye opener for Quadri, who despite his efforts could not make the main draw. He then realised that the only way to take his game beyond the continent was to turn professional and move to Europe, where he would play on better facilities and good coaches.
His first port of call was B.I.P.C. Club in Tehran, Iran. The club gave him opportunity to see other cultures, but not the professional change he wanted at that stage of his career.Quadri’s breakthrough came in 2009 when he moved to Portugal to continue his professional career with AS Novelense in the Portuguese elite league. He also got a kit sponsorship deal with Germany-based sportswear manufacturing company, Joola.
Explaining why he was signed up, Director of Joola, Andreas Hain, said the deal was prompted by Quadri’s desire to excel. “When we saw Quadri in 2009, we identified his talent and also noticed that he was dedicated to his trade. When we decided to sign him on, he was not that kind of player that wanted to make money by all means. But he just wanted to play, and this, for us, was inspiring and that was why we kept faith with him. We also felt that he was going to help us to promote our business in Africa based on his quality and skills.”
In his first season with AS Novelense, Quadri established himself as an instant star and for the first time, the club made it to the final of the league, which they eventually lost to Sporting Lisbon.“After my brief sojourn in Iran, I wanted a tough challenge that would bring out the best in me and fortunately for me I got a premiership team in Portugal.
“In my first season with the team, we narrowly lost the title to Sporting Lisbon. But this feat prompted the team’s management to give me another opportunity to prove myself. I was undefeated in the second season and was named the best player in the league. But another attempt at winning the league was also shattered by GD Toledos, another top club in Portugal. Despite losing to Toledos, the Pico Island-based team approached me to join them. For me, this was another chance for me to prove myself and till this moment, I do not regret joining the team for the 2012/2013 season,” he explained.
On the journey to stardom, Quadri said: “Nobody knew about me when I started my professional career in 2010. I have sacrificed a lot by sponsoring myself to tournaments every year and my seriousness with the game convinced the former president of the Nigeria Table Tennis Federation (NTTF) to help me to attend more international competitions.”
With GD Toledos, Quadri has won two league titles; two league Cups and Super Cups in the Portuguese while he made history as the first player to lead the team to win the Mediterranean Cup title for the first time.Since moving to Portugal, Quadri has been investing in himself by attending several international tournaments. He made his first appearance at the Pro Tour in 2010 when he featured at the Kuwait and Qatar Opens but he never made it beyond the group stage.
When his coach at GD Toledos left unceremoniously in 2014, Quadri became a coach/player that most times he inspired the team to several wins in the league.“I started working harder more than before in the beginning of 2014. I made a return to the Kuwait and Qatar Opens and unfortunately for me, I could not make it to the main draw. But this did not stop me from working hard and believing in myself,” Quadri said.
The Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps officer added: “I had another opportunity to showcase my talent at the Germany Open in March that year; I once again failed to make it beyond the first round. Immediately after the German Open, I started studying my mistakes by I watching all my matches for more than three hours each day.
“At the next tournament, which was the Spanish Open, I defeated some of the top rated players to make the last 16 of the competition. This really improved my world rating to top 150. But I knew I was yet to maximise my potential I returned to Nigeria to take part in the Lagos Pro Tour, where I made it to the semifinal stage. But at the African Top 16 Cup, I dazed everybody by beating the two top seeded players from Egypt — Omar Assar and El-Sayed Lashin — to be crowned the champion and also claimed the sole slot to represent Africa at the World Cup,” he said.
Again, Quadri continued with his good run when he stunned the world with his excellent performance at the Czech Open where he made it to the quarterfinal stage after beating Portugal’s Tiago Apolonia, rated 17th and Russia’s Alexander Shibaev, ranked 37th, in the world. These victories pushed Quadri up the world ranking to 73 in the world.Prior to the World Cup in Dusseldorf, Quadri was never considered as favourite for the title as he was seeded 17 among the 20 players taking part in the competition in Germany.
There was no inkling that Quadri could make it beyond the first round, as he was grouped alongside Japan’s Kenta Matsudaira and Russia’s Shibaev.
But he surprised everybody by beating Matsudaira 4-2 to cause the first upset of the tournament.As a giant killer, who was familiar with the style of the Russian, he overwhelmed Shibaev 4-0 to make a triumphant progress to the main draw made up of the top 16 players, including the World and Olympics champion, China’s Zhang Jike.
When the draw for the round of 16 was conducted there was no chance for him among the top players, as he was again pitched against world number 17, Hong Kong’s Tang Peng. But his style of play coupled with his conduct on table drew a lot of German fans to the venue and true to his rating since he began his good run, Quadri rubbished ranking to confine the Hong Kong to a 4-2 win, which made the Nigerian to become the toast of the Germans.
The biggest task for Quadri was in the quarterfinal tie against World and Olympic Champion, China’s Zhang Jike. From statistics and records, Quadri was no match to the Chinese but when the encounter began, it was obvious that the Nigerian knew what was at stake and it took sheer determination and experience from the Olympics champion to conquer Quadri 4-2. Despite losing to the Chinese, Quadri received a standing ovation from the German fans, who felt that the Nigerian gave a good account of himself.His performance at the World Cup made Quadri the first African and black player to make it to top 30 in the world in the ITTF world ranking.
“Making it to the top 30 in the world is like a dream come true but at the same time I could say I deserve it because I worked hard for it. However, it was not that easy to be in top 30 as it took a lot of hard work, discipline, determination and self-belief to get there. I give God the glory for crowning my effort. Most importantly those who have been supporting me financially on and off the table. Uncountable thanks goes to my biggest ever sponsor, former president, Nigeria Table Tennis Federation (NTTF), Wahid Oshodi, for his wonderful support,” he said.
Despite the giant strides, Quadri has made in his career, he still believes that he has a lot more to do to maintain his status among the best players in the world. “It is somehow easy to move up but maintaining it is always the problem and I seriously believe with God on my side I still have better days ahead and I can still do so much better than before. I think I should always be in my 100 per cent best in all tournaments and I am seriously working harder towards this.
“I increased my practice hours after the World Cup and my physical fitness have been monitored well more than before in order to be fitter than before physically on the table. It is not going to be easy at all but I will keep the hard work going until I get there.”
The Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps officer has set his sight on doing better at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics than the quarterfinals he made at the Brazil 2016 Games. He also wants to be among the top 10 players of the world.Quadri announced himself to the world with his extra-ordinary performance in Brazil when he conquered one of the men’s singles gold medal favourites and former world number one – Germany’s Timo Boll – to berth in the quarterfinal of the games as the first African. His good run met a strong opposition in China’s Ma Long who ended the dream of the Nigerian in the last eight of the championship. Ma Long went on to clinch the gold medal for China in the event.
“There have always been goals after goals for me because before I made it to top 80 in the world, my objective at the Czech Open was to be in top 100 but surprisingly I moved faster than everyone expected to get to 73 in the world. When I got to 73 and prior to the World Cup, my target was to qualify from the group stage in order to make it to top 50 in the world and it was amazing that against all odds I made it to number 30 in the world.
“There are strong indications that I can still go further provided that I keep working hard, and with more support from sponsors me,” Quadri explained.To ensure he has something to fall back on after quitting the game, Quadri had enrolled in an online school where he has bagged a degree in homeland security and management from Atlantic International University.
Quadri started the year at 26th place in the January 2019 ITTF ranking, but he is ending the year as the 20th ranked player in the world.
According to the December 2019 ranking released recently by the world table tennis ruling body, the Nigerian maintained his status in the last two months to remain the best-ranked African player in the world. 26th spot was the lowest Quadri achieved this year while in September he rose to 19 being the best ranking he achieved in 2019.
Recently, Quadri has been spending some time mentoring young Nigerian players, who want to make their careers in table tennis. In his camp are six players, made up of five boys and one girl, including national junior champion, Azeez Solanke. Others are Tobi Falana, Rilwan Akanbi, Sukurat Aiyelabegan and Nurudeen Hassan.
According to Quadri, there is need for players to be supported in their quest to fulfill their dream. “I am doing this to ensure that we produce more top players and I know that one of the major challenges is equipment. That is why I have decided to support them and I hope they will continue to work hard in training so that they can also compete at higher level,” said the 2014 ITTF Star Player.Quadri is married to his friend, Ganiat, who is also a professional player in Portugal and they both have three children.