It was an assemblage of the best ping pongers from Lagos State at the 2013 yearly Asoju Oba Cup at the Molade Okoya Thomas Hall of the Teslim Balogun Stadium, Surulere, Lagos and the focus of the players was on the brand new Chevrolet car prize for the winner. At the end of a grilling completion, it was Olajide Omotayo that carted away the car prize.
Since then, he has not looked back. At the World Junior Championship in Morocco in 2013, Omotayo was Nigeria’s standout player.
Against all odds, the 25-year-old defeated his role model, idol and compatriot, Aruna Quadri to win the men’s singles gold at the 2019 African Games in Rabat and therefore breaks into the continent’s top five for the first time after reaching a career-high number 81 in the world rankings on the back of his run at the African Games.
From the quarterfinal stage of the competition, Omotayo worked his way to the final, beating two former champions – Egypt’s Ahmed Saleh and Nigeria’s Segun Toriola in the quarterfinal and semifinal stages respectively before setting the stage for an epoch final against Quadri.
An elated Omotayo said afterward: “I am very happy winning the African Games. I am so proud of myself because this is a big one for my career and it was a good journey for me from the start of this competition, having won against some of the best players in the continent.”
When he made his first international appearance for Nigeria as a cadet at the 2008 International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) African Junior and Cadet Championships in Alexandria, Egypt, little did the youngster knew he was embarking on a journey of no return and more than 10 years after his baptism in Egypt, Omotayo has established himself as an integral member of Nigeria’s senior team to several international tournaments.
While his peers all tilted to the direction of football, which was the most popular past time sports for children in Somolu, a suburb of Lagos State, Omotoyo’s love for table tennis could not be compromised.
“I also love football but my love for table tennis was far greater and beyond my father’s imagination. It was after my father noticed my interest in the sport and he began to tell me about his exploits in it. Unfortunately, his personal racket was inherited by my sister who started the sport before me,” he recalled.
With the interest being fired up by his family, the young Omotayo was also looking up to the exploit of former national junior champion – Lanre Jegede who later introduced him to his first coach.
“I was also looking up to Lanre Jegede who was then the national junior champion ad he was living in Somolu too and he took me to Coach Ismail Surmer. It was the support that I got from Jegede and my coach that really motivated me to continue the sport.
“Later Jegede moved abroad and whenever he comes to Nigeria, he would devote time to teach me new things in the sport and provide equipment for me as well. At this point, he has made the national team and he was also playing professionally in France. So I could say that Jegede really supported me as a young player,” he added.
The 2018 Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast, Australia; as well as the scintillating outing at the African Championship in Mauritius remains the turning point of Omotayo’s career.
“The 2018 Commonwealth Games was one of the greatest experiences for me. It was a cherished silver medal for Nigeria and the most amazing part is that I was actually part of the team and I made an impact. I also got to play alongside Quadri and even played doubles with Toriola.
“Also the 2018 African Championship in Mauritius became my best performance so far because a month before the competition, I lost against an Egyptian in front of home fans at Nigeria Open and I felt so bad about it but with the help of my teammates I was able to get back on my feet and look,” he recalled.
Now ranked in the top 100 in the world, his dream is to make it to the top 50.
“My biggest dream is to get to the top 50 in the world and win African championships as well as African Top 16 Cup. I also want to qualify for the Olympic Games,” the Italy-based ping ponger said.
He, however, admitted that the feat achieved by his compatriot –Quadri has been the motivating factor for him.
“Aruna Quadri’s feat has been a great motivation to me, so-much-so that sometimes before I sleep I watch some of his matches. Globally, he has placed Nigeria on the world map and I wish that I follow his footstep,” he noted.
With the way he is going, the question is not whether he could make it to the world’s top 50, but how soon.