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Ayeni’s Dreams: US-born Nigerian Teenager Vows To Win Wimbledon Someday

US-born and raised Nigerian tennis player, Oluwakayode Alafia Ayeni Damina was one of the players ranked for the 2018 Lagos Open International Tennis Championships, but he lost out in the first round.

Nigerian Tennis Live caught up with the 19-year-old California-based teenager who bared his mind on his tennis career, his relationship and what he thinks about Nigerian tennis/players.

Excerpts:

What’s the difference between tennis in Nigeria and in the United States?
Tennis in Nigeria is a lot more mental than tennis in the United States. In the US, you can get by if you maybe trained for longer than the other guy, work harder than the other guy. But here, it feels like you have to be mentally tough to be able to make a headway under tough conditions. It’s very, very different from the States.

What do you think of Nigerian tennis players?
I have seen a couple of them, and they’re very strong players. I think they need to be refined a little bit. There are certainly some things that I can see that I saw in myself because they have a lot of power. They have a lot of natural athletic ability. It’s tough, because they work so hard. They look much more athletic than everyone else here, so it’s like why aren’t they winning?
It’s because they need to just refine their skills a little more. Right now, it’s like when you pull a diamond out of the ground, it needs to be polished, it needs to be ready. There’s a lot of potential in Nigerian tennis but again, potential doesn’t mean anything unless you do something to it.

Ayeni in action at the Lagos Open International Tennis Championships.

Why was choosing the United States ahead of Nigeria a better option for you?

There’s a number of things… the number one is that I was born in the States, and it took up the most of my formative years. I lived in California, I played a lot of American kids. I didn’t go to Africa until I was 15, and that was here – Lagos. I should be here more often, but I shouldn’t because of school. I went to college in the US, I went to High School in the US.


Can you say anything in Yoruba?
(Stutters) Err… you’re putting me on the spot right now. My brother speaks fluent Yoruba. I know like my name… err… God has brought joy to the house. And my name, it means peacemaker. My brother always tells me to remember that name. It’s a title, that I should wear it with pride.

Do you have plans to get married to a Nigerian lady, perhaps?
(Laughs) My girlfriend is in the States…

Why not a Nigerian lady, though?
I haven’t met one that likes me, they all say go away… (general laughter)

Asides tennis, what else do you do?
I am a Computer Science Major at Cornell University, so I design like games. I also was in the RTC in the US.

The Nigerian/American serving during one of the matches at the Lagos Open competition. He lost out in the first round.

What’s your target in tennis?
I firmly believe that I can be top among the ten players in the world. I have shown it multiple times that I have the ability to beat the guys that are up there. I beat two or three guys that are in the top 50 in the world.

My doubles partner is Stefanos Stistipas is currently number 15 in the world (now number 16), so it’s definitely something I see a great spot for me in the future. Obviously, everybody has different speeds to climb to the top, but I know I just need to have the belief in what I’m doing and stay confident and in my beliefs; definitely, I’ll keep finding my way to the top.

What’s your happiest day in tennis so far?
Err… it’s actually kind of tight because there are three days that were really great days for me. One, obviously was when I won the Futures in Canada. I entered through the qualifying rounds to win the tournament; that left an amazing feeling. Another one was when I won the National Championships in the US. I was the national champion for a year; that felt pretty good.

The third was when I played in the Wimbledon qualifying for the first time, I was 15 and I qualified for the Main Draw. First time I ever played a grand slam, it was Wimbledon. To qualify for that… that was the only time I’ve ever cried in happiness after winning a match. The only time in my life.

To come from where I came from, you know, my dad really had to work extra hours to raise me… the courts I played in were complete shit. Nobody wanted to hit with me, nobody thought I was good enough. A lot of things… it doesn’t seem like a perfect story for someone to make it from there.

So when I qualified for Wimbledon, it was like a validation of my dream and my worth. Wimbledon is my favourite ground, so to qualify for it was a great feeling.

The youngster celebrates winning one of his junior tournaments in the United States.

What would be your happiest day in tennis?
Happiest day is when I win Wimbledon. That’s my greatest dream. My game is suited to the surface. I have a great serve, I come to the net a lot, I have a good return, really good movement.. so I’ve got what it takes. Winning would be beyond dreams coming through; that would be indescribable.

I don’t think there’s any African-American who’s won the Wimbledon since Arthur Ashe who’s won it.

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