by Olalekan Okusan, ITTF-Africa Press Officer
It is quite incredible progress; one year ago his name did not even appear in the global order; in June, after a period away from the international scene, he returned to the listings at no.484!
How did your journey to Tokyo Olympic Games start?
My journey to the Olympic Games started last year on Friday 19th April, just two days before the Liebherr 2019 World Championship in Budapest. I was playing video games with my friends, when I luckily checked the email on my phone.
I received an email from ITTF saying that I was eligible to participate in the World Championships. I had to quit the game with my friends and called my girlfriend who was at school. She couldn’t believe it because we had planned that weekend. She booked my ticket while I was running to the hall to pick up my rackets, shoes and pack my bag to go to the airport.
For a fact I did not have the time to take public transport, so we had to call her brother to drive me to the airport. I even didn’t have a racket ready for the event. I borrowed four rubbers from a friend. It was in Budapest that I met my sponsor Andro who decided to invest in me for my journey towards the Olympic Games.
At what stage did you decide to play for Senegal having played as a junior for France?
I decided to play for Senegal a year before the Olympic Games in Rio as I was then living in Halmstad in Sweden, the city hosted the European qualification tournament for Rio 2016 Olympics.
It was while watching the tournament that I was able to see the joy of all the players that qualified to Rio and that was the trigger day for me.
What really prompted you to change nationality to Senegal?
I always wanted a chance to compete internationally; to play big matches against good players at big tournaments. The possibility to represent Senegal gave me the freedom to play all the tournaments I wanted.
How do you describe the experience of competing for Senegal in the last 12months?
The experience of competing for Senegal in the last 12 months has been really intense and exciting. In less than a year I have played one World Championship, one African Cup, one African Games, one African Top 16 Cup, one qualifier and 12 international tournaments in four continents and 16 countries.
I played more tournaments last year than I have played all my senior career. I’m also very proud to put Senegal on a new standard just before the 2022 Youth Olympic Games in Dakar. It was also hard to shift your life entirely from one day to another. I’m lucky that my girlfriend helped me to organise my calendar, my travels, expenses among others. I’m also lucky and thankful because she was a former national team player and she understands that I needed to travel a lot.
Any regrets leaving France for Senegal?
No, I don’t have any regret but I’m thankful to the French system who gave me the opportunity to practise in a very good infrastructure with good coaches to sharpen my game during my youth.
You rose to 69 in the latest world ranking, how did you achieve this and how smooth has been the journey to the top?
It was a really tough and intense journey to achieve this ranking. Luckily, I played well at my two to three big tournaments in Africa and that’s not an easy task when you see European players who come to the Nigerian Open.
I had good performances in Thailand, Belarus, Indonesia and Canada Opens.
What is different from playing in European tournaments and African tournaments?
For me there are two big differences between European and African tournaments. First, when I started my tournaments in Africa, I was going to an unknown territory as I didn’t know who I was playing against, their level or spirit.
In Europe, everybody knows each other and it is a bit easy to get some information on the internet or from players to players. In Africa you can start the tournament playing someone with a really low level and the next match play some of the top players in the world and that is not an easy situation. In Europe the level increases smoothly along the way in the tournaments.
How were you able to rise to the top of your game despite the fierce competition in Africa?
I think that my game is a nightmare for many of the African players. I’m not as powerful as them but I’m faster and more balanced. That’s helping me a lot to rise to the top. A fan told me after the match against Quadri Aruna that your match looks like the fight between Mohamed Ali and Joe Frazier.
When you decided to play for Senegal, was making it to Tokyo part of the plans?
Yes, when I decided to play for Senegal, making it to Tokyo was the main plan. I remembered that my girlfriend and her family, being a table tennis family support me a lot by looking into the regulations, ranking point systems, prospectus to each tournament.
After analysis, we drew a plan and looked at the tournaments that would help me to to qualify and it worked.
Can you rate the standard of table tennis in Africa?
I can’t really rate the standard of table tennis in Africa. I just like to see more African players on the World Tour. The few of us who are lucky enough to play are doing really well so far and I suggested the African federations to invest in their players and join the competition.
What are your targets in Tokyo?
I don’t really have a target in Tokyo; when I go to a tournament I always keep my expectations really low. I’ll try to come with a fresh body and mind and ready to fight against anyone. We will see how far I can go.
How are you coping despite the global lockdown over the COVID-19?
Right now I’m in Denmark and the lockdown is not as strict as in France or Italy for example. So I have a chance to go out sometimes and practise twice a week with a friend in a private hall.
I’m trying to stay healthy, do some gym, read books and learn new skills. It is not easy everyday but I’m aware that I’m in a better situation than many people right now, so I’m grateful.
How did this pandemic affect your preparation for Tokyo?
At first, I was really worried about my preparation for Tokyo because all he tournaments were postponed but when the International Olympic Committee decided to postpone the Olympics for 2021, I was a little bit relieved because I really want to live the full experience of an Olympic; also to have this pandemic nightmare far away from us and fully live the experience without any fear.
Lessons for upcoming players?
The lesson that upcoming players can learn from my experience would be at first; believe in yourself, surround yourself with people who believe in you and what you want. Listen to them and push hard.