A FEW months ago, 14-year old Sarah Adegoke represented Nigeria at an international junior tennis championship in Morocco, where she acquitted herself creditably, judging by the calibre of players at the event. Most Nigerian tennis followers saw her performance in Morocco as a sign that she would do great in the game if nurtured carefully.
The predictions were that in about seven years, Adegoke would be among the best players in the world if given the necessary mentoring and sponsorship to skill-enhancing competitions around the world.
But such was the surprise at the just-concluded Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) Open Tennis Championship, where the senior class two student threw the pundits’ expectations to the dust bin by beating most of the country’s top female players to end the competition as Nigeria’s new number two player.
That was her first senior championship, but the way she went about the job portrayed her as a lad with some hidden weapons in her armour. Adegoke started her campaign at the CBN Open from the qualifiers, and with constant pep talk and technical support from her father, the teenage sensation fought her way into the main draw, a feat many considered brilliant for a junior player.
As if that was not astonishing enough, Adegoke stunned bookmakers again when she caused the biggest upset in the first round of the championship by edging out women’s singles defending champion and number two seed, Abiola Akewula, 6-2, 3-6, 6-0.
After the slugfest, even her victim, Akewula, admitted that stopping the teenager would be a tall order for any player at the competition.
She was so classy and at the same time very ferocious with her strokes that the disappointed Akewula could not explain what befell her, but simply said: “I don’t just know what happened because I played well. But the girl was just too good and her forehand really worked wonders during the match.”
Now the toast of tennis fans at the courts at the National Stadium, Lagos, Adegoke caused another upset 24 hours later when she bundled out number five seeded Anu Aiyegbusi 6-4, 6-2 to set up a semi-final clash with third seeded Christy Agugbom. But like those before her, Agugbom, a former champion of the tourney, could not believe what befell her as she, too, bowed to Adegoke.
That gave the spectators, including officials of the Nigeria Tennis Federation (NTF), the belief that for once, the country was witnessing the unravelling of a future world-beater. Though an exhausted Adegoke fell to another former champion, Fatimo Abinu, who triumphed 6-4, 6-3 in the final game to win the N600,000 cash prize, the general feeling was that given more time, no Nigerian woman would find the young lass easy to deal with. For her efforts, Adegoke went home with N400,000.
Amazed by her composure and skill, tournament referee, Seidu Musa, who is also an International Tennis Federation (ITF) bronze badge referee in West Africa, described the girl as a player that must be encouraged, stating: “I think players like Adegoke need to be encouraged.
“The last time we had players like this was three years ago. I think what she needs is more training because she has the potential to be among the best in Africa and play in top competitions in the world. She needs quality coaching for her to excel more.”
A shy Adegoke told The Guardian that she was encouraged to take to the sport by her father when she was six years old: “When my dad introduced me to the game, I did not really want to play but after some months I started developing interest,” she said. “My dad has been very supportive to ensure that I combine the game with my academics very well.
“My first outing for Nigeria was in 2010 in Ghana, which was also my first time of travelling out of the country. Before then, I never imagined that it was tennis that would take me out of this country. Since then, I have featured in many competitions in Africa and I am looking forward to playing in the Grand Slam.”
Adegoke expressed willingness to pursue a career in the game, but admitted that for her to move up, she needed to play more tournaments within and outside the country. She said: “I really want to take to the game as my career and know that I need to be playing more competitions. But unfortunately, in Nigeria we don’t have enough tournaments. My dream is to play in the Grand Slam.”
She explained that the support she got from her parents has helped her to combine tennis with her academics at St. Louis Secondary School, Ibadan, where she made credits and distinctions in her Junior School Certificate Examination in 2010, her best subject being Mathematics, in which she scored A.
Adegoke, who aspires to become a computer engineer in the future, dedicates her achievements in sports and academics to God and her father, who doubles as her coach on court and her personal teacher/tutor at home, helping her with school work. She said: “My dad has been very supportive while my mum is also there for me.
“I know I have been getting support from a lot of people I know and those I don’t know. In terms of education, I get extra lessons from my dad, which has made it easy for me to be up to date in my education. In school, I am always recognised at the assembly whenever I win any major competition and this has indeed motivated me to continue to work hard.”
Prior to her debut at this year’s CBN Open, Adegoke played as a wildcard at the 2011 Lagos Governor’s Cup and was one of the few Nigerians that made it to the second round of the ITF tourney. At the junior level, she has won several competitions in Togo, Botswana and Senegal.
Speaking on her daughter’s strides in the game, Sarah’s father told The Guardian that it has not been easy supporting her in the game because “tennis is an expensive sport. But having played the game while in school, I had to encourage Sarah to take to it.”
He revealed: “The tips I got from Arthur Ashe while schooling at Howard University in the United States have been helping me in training my daughter. But I think for now she needs to get out of this country. The only support we have been getting for her has been coming from the Chairman of Wayne West Africa, Mr. Ogi Alakija, a former national cricket player.
“His company has been very supportive and apart from this, everything has been from the family. Tennis academies, like the world-renowned IMG Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Florida, are ready to take her in and turn her into a star as they have done to the Andre Agassis of this world. But to attend such academies and also complete her high school education, she will need about $70,000 a year.
“We have written to well-meaning individuals without any help coming forth. We are still seeking support from corporate bodies to help her achieve her dream of being among the best in the world.
“I know that if my daughter starts doing well globally, the glory will not be for my family alone but for the entire country, and I am appealing to well-meaning Nigerians and corporate companies to assist in grooming our own Serena Williams.”
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Adegoke, the 14-year-old prodigy destined for the top