Is there a lot of interest in table tennis in Africa or is it still a growing sport? And who are some of the best table tennis players in that continent?
Table tennis is a sport traditionally associated with Asia and more so China given their solid showing at Olympics but it has also shown a steady growth in Africa in recent times. Despite the obvious love for football among African nations, the number of table tennis players is growing and some of the torch-bearers of today can be credited with the reason for that.
Below we look at some of the top African table tennis players who have stood up to help grow the sport in the continent in more recent times.
Who are Africa’s Best Table Tennis Players?
Five of Africa’s best table tennis players include the following:
- Quadri Aruna
- Omar Assar
- Dina Meshref
- Ibrahima Diaw
- Olufunke Oshonaike
Here’s a brief on the aforementioned player careers and why we believe they are the torch-bearers of table tennis in Africa.
A Nigerian table tennis player, Quadri Aruna shot to fame by becoming the first African player to reach the quarterfinal stage of the Olympics. Known for his unorthodox style of play, Aruna has frustrated many a stronger opposition with it including his solid showing at the 2016 Olympics.
Seeded 27th in that competition – the only African to be seeded in the top 32 – Aruna got a direct entry into the second round and went on to stun two higher-ranked and higher pedigreed on his way to the last-eight stage. After getting past Wang Yang in the second round, he was scheduled to face the fifth seeded Chuang Chih-yuan – a former Olympics semifinalist.
Struggling to understand Aruna’s game, Chuang was crushed in four straight games by the Nigerian.
This was followed by a third round encounter against Timo Boll, a former world number one – having also topped the charts as recently as 2018. And Aruna plundered past him, winning 4-2 to enter the quarterfinal where he had the misfortune of meeting the world number one and top seed Ma Long.
Why Aruna will always remain one of the players to remember as far as African table tennis is concerned is it was after his performance at the 2016 Olympics, the sport gained even more popularity in his country. In an interview, Aruna revealed that showing had spawned a lot of interest in Nigeria.
“Table tennis is really popular in the street. Even if you don’t have a standard table you can find something to improve your play. If you don’t have the equipment you can use other materials to play as long as the ball is going across, to the other side of the table.”
“The problem has been getting financial support to take people to the next level.”
If Aruna continues to inspire youngsters the way he has so far, there should soon come a stage where funding would cease to remain an issue.
While Egypt’s Omar Assar hasn’t had the best of times at Olympics, his record against Aruna is quite remarkable. Assar, a silver-medallist at the 2011 Arab Games, and went on to win the gold medal in the singles competition of the All-Africa Games in 2011 before defending his title in 2015.
At the men’s event of the 2018 and 2019 ITTF Africa Cup, he defeated Aruna in the final both times to win the gold. As a result, Assar’s career-best ranking of 16th in the world, came in 2018 before he fell away a little again.
The Olympics of 2012 and 2016 saw Assar making it to the second round at the former and losing in the first at the latter.
Egypt’s Dina Meshref makes it to this list by the dint of her best world table tennis ranking of 31, which she achieved in December 2019. And it’s not just the ranking but her performance as the African number one women’s player which is much to adore.
Meshref’s career received a boost when she won the 2017 ITTF Africa Cup gold medal by defeating Olufunke Oshonaike in the final.
And that began a run in the Africa Cup competition which led her to winning the next three titles at the same competition in 2018, 2019 and 2020, defeating Sarah Hanffou of Cameroon, Yousra Helmy of Egypt and Nigeria’s Offiong Edem in those finals.
At the time of writing, Ibrahima Diaw has a world ranking of 69th in the world and while that might not seem extraordinary, it wouldn’t be remiss to point out the kind of ascent this player from Senegal has seen.
Diaw was 964th on the ITTF Rankings chart in October 2018 when he took a break from the sport but returned nine months later to list at 484. In a matter of less than 10 months later, Diaw had risen more than 400 places to 69th.
All of this, however, would have counted for very little had it not been for what he did in the interim. He stunned Quadri Aruna at the African Olympic qualifiers in February 2020 to make it to the big league, something he had never dreamed of doing.
In doing so, he became the first table tennis player from Senegal to qualify for the Olympics.
What’s also curious is Diaw’s coach Nathanael Molin isn’t always with him because of the lack of sponsorship. Molin helps, guides and assists Diaw online because he doesn’t always have the money to bring him to tournaments.
However, with his startling rise so far, a solid showing at the Olympics in Tokyo wouldn’t be a surprise which could lead to a few sponsors lining up to sign up for him.
Such is Nigerian Olufunke Oshonaike’s legend, she was given the honor of being the flag-bearer of her country at the 2016 Olympics, aged 40. And at 44, she qualified for her seventh Olympics despite not being in the running because of a variety of injury issues and surgery.
However, Oshonaike made history when she qualified for her seventh Olympics in 2020.
Her story becomes even more awe-inspiring given what she has gone through to achieve her success. Oshonaike has been booed for defeating crowd-favourite opponents, lost her husband to a shooting and played and won despite being six months pregnant, and then returned to the sport immediately after delivering to continue winning medals in African competitions.