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The tennis story of Marylove Edwards is truly amazing. After a shot at athletics failed, the 11-year-old found love on the tennis courts, sealing a deal that could see her enter the history books as the country’s first female tennis player on the WTA Circuit, reports ’TANA AIYEJINA
Marylove, I’m in love,” screamed a fan at the Lagos Lawn Tennis Club, Onikan, before another yelled, “with your game.”
This is the chant that fills the air anytime tennis prodigy Marylove Edwards scores a point or puts up a scintillating display during games.
Plenty of tennis fairytale stories seem set to be written in the near future with the recent entrance of Edwards, who resides in the Agege suburb of Lagos, into the Nigerian scene.
Self-confident, tough-talking and incurably optimistic on-and-off the courts, the 11-year-old tennis sensation is on the path to becoming Nigeria’s next big thing after sealing a deal with Temple Management Company.
After a hard training supervised by her dad, Eddy, at the tennis court of the Lagos State Property Development Company Estate on Oba Ogunji Road, Ogba, Lagos, she walks up to our correspondent for an interview with an aura of confidence.
But just as the session is about to start, Edwards makes the sign of the cross.“I thank God for everything, I thank the fans and I love them. My focus is always on winning every game; I don’t really listen to the shouts of the fans when I’m playing,” she said with a chuckle.
Born on March 18, 2005, Edwards started playing tennis at age four. Incidentally, she started out as an athlete but Eddy discovered that his daughter couldn’t withstand the harshness of the tracks.
“I’m a sportsman, so I had plans for her before she was even born. I actually wanted her to be a sprinter but I discovered that she was always gasping for breath after races, so I changed to Plan B, which is tennis,” Eddy said.
But using the racket wasn’t an easy task either for the tender and frail-looking Marylove. “It was a little bit heavy but I managed to carry it well and I used it very well,” she stated.
In a society that largely frowns at females indulging in sporting activities, Eddy embarked on a journey to ensure that his daughter became the very best in what she was doing. It came with serious challenges like funding and lack of facilities and tournaments in the country, but it didn’t deter the Edo-born man.
“Being a girl even pushed me to encourage her to go into tennis,” he said. “We try to bring new inventions to her game. I’ve seen all over the world females dominate tennis and I asked myself, ‘why is no Nigerian among them?’ I’m on the way to doing that and I thank God the road map is set,” he said.
“Ever since, I have been equipping myself getting videos especially from the US, where I get guidelines on how to coach and train her and her training has been very confident since she started. Sometimes she trains seven times a week.”
According to Russian tennis star Elena Vesnina, who caused a stir when she knocked Venus Williams out in the first round of Wimbledon four years ago, “There are a lot of pretty girls in tennis. But you also need strength, stamina, personality, charm and know how to show yourself. You also shouldn’t seem too-prim a young lady, too good a girl. A lot of supporters love sportsmen because they catch them with their personality.”
Vesnina probably anticipated the emergence of Edwards when she made the comment in July. The 11-year-old packs both beauty and brains but more importantly, she sure knows how to ‘show herself.’
Asked who her real model was, she replied bullishly, “I don’t really have a role model, I’m myself, I want people to imitate and copy my style of play.”
She’s won virtually every title at stake in the country, in her category. The most recent was winning last year’s U-14 CBN Junior Tennis Championship and the NNPC Junior Tennis Masters. Alongside Barakat Quadri, Edwards saw off Anna Lumengo and Manuella Eloundou of Cameroun 6-3, 6-4 to win the 2016 ITF/CAT West and Central Africa Junior Championships holding in Abuja U-14 girls category.
After her recent defeat of Nigeria’s number one seed, Sarah Adegoke, at an exhibition match at the NCC League at Ikoyi Club, Edwards has been victorious in all her games including a win over longtime nemesis and friend Angel McLeod.
“I’m courageous because I know I’m going to be a future champion; so, I can beat anybody. The way I play, I am confident I can get there,” Edwards added.
“She (Adegoke) didn’t really play very well that day; she had an injury but I know that even if she had played well, I would have beaten her. When I first played against McLeod, I didn’t understand her game but when we played continually together, I knew I could beat her, which I did at the last NNPC tournament.
It’s not all been a rosy tale for Edwards too. She’s also recorded near misses in her young but fledging career. After winning last year’s CBN U-14 final against Timipre Maxwell from Port-Harcourt, talented Edwards could not do a double as McCleod beat her in the U-16 event.
The loss painfully denied her the N100, 000 grant which the International Tennis Academy had promised to give any player who won in two different categories. And then there is also Morocco-based Oyinlomo Quadri, who defeated her in the final of the 2016 ITF/CAT West and Central Africa Tennis Championship in January in Abuja, to contend with.
But Edwards’ coach, Kayode Savage, who started tutoring her when she was four, is impressed with the player’s progress.
“Marylove copes well after a defeat. After a game, I ask how she feels and from her feedbacks, we get what we will work on in her next training,” Savage said.
“When I first saw her, I observed that she was very strong and determined. So I told myself ‘if I can concentrate more on her training, she might be the next tennis star’ and there is a tremendous progress. She is now ranked 10th in Africa in the girls’ 14 and under category after just three tournaments.”
“The next thing on line is to get her ready for competitions across Africa. The target is to get her to the WTA Circuit and the Grand Slams.”
Despite her confident mien, Edwards wasn’t born with a silver spoon, neither did she enjoy the life of affluence while growing up at their Bankole Street, Agege home.
Her family stays in a two-room apartment, behind a house popularly referred to as face-me-I-face-you. But the family proudly adorns their sitting room with the medals and trophies won by their daughter.
Eddy said, “My aim was to make sure that she trained everyday even though I didn’t have money. I had passion for the game and I kept focusing on the future. She has improved to the extent that she now thinks on her own, everything about her is unique.
“It wasn’t easy but it’s always about commitment, getting it done. I made her understand that she stands to benefit a lot from the game, if she cooperates with me. Thank God she is a very determined person; her mother has been very helpful too.”
Combining education is one difficult task for most Nigerian athletes but for the Edwards, they have been able to carve out a working plan to combine both.
“I go to school at 7am, return home at 3pm, eat and go for training. I return from training around 6pm. I then do my assignments; my dad teaches me and I have a teacher who teaches me at home as well. I go to bed by 8pm,” Edwards said.
But Edwards is not just about tennis and education alone. She combines both with a social lifestyle as well, says Savage.
“Marylove’s social life is normal and she’s not restricted from having her own playtime aside from playing tennis. Sometimes, we go swimming together and visit the malls.”
Good luck shone on the Edwards family, when Marylove’s outstanding performances caught the attention of the Temple Management Company, an event firm involved in the entertainment, sports, media and art sectors.
TMC also has on their label top entertainment personalities, amongst whom are Don Jazzy and Funmi Iyanda.
“TMC met us and we discussed and ever since, we’ve been involved in a partnership that has made things so easy; the funding, total wellbeing is now taken care of by TMC. She trains with ease and travelling to tournaments is done on time,” Eddy said.
Before the partnership, Edwards’ major challenges were travelling worldwide for tournaments due to the unavailability of tournaments in Nigeria. Now, the African number 10 is looking beyond the continent, after she sealed the TMC deal.
“I don’t want to be a Nigerian champion; I want to be a worldwide champion. Now that TMC is going to help me train with the best facilities and play against the best all over the world, I am hopeful of beating the best,” she stated.
TMC’s head of sports, Koye Sowemimo, an English FA Level 1 football coach and a licensed FIFA match agent, should have looked towards the direction of a footballer taking into consideration his football background.
Armed with a wealth of experience spanning over 10 years in the sports industry, Sowemimo worked at Eurosport Television, The English FA, McDonald’s Grassroots Football Sponsorship, London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, and was also involved in the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations as well as the 2013 CAF Champions League and Confederation Cup respectively.
Edwards’ amazing skills and personality perhaps caught Sowemimo off guard, but he said TMC wanted a diversification from football, adding that Edwards is a brand they hope to breed into a global champion.
“There are lots of talents out there in tennis; I have seen quite a few. But what struck me particularly about Marylove was her unique style,” Sowemimo confessed.
“She is not the usual traditional tennis player. She has a very unique style; she’s double-handed, generates a lot of power and the most important aspect of what I saw in her was her appetite for the sport. I’ve watched her trainings and matches, she is amazing and she believes she would be a world champion.
“The corporate world is involved in football but recently I have seen some who are in other sports as well. A phone company for instance is sponsoring a badminton championship in Rowe Park, Yaba. So, I believe the corporate world wants to see something different; they also want to see a talent that they can latch on early enough; a talent that grows with them as a brand and who becomes part of their legacy. Edwards fits it.”
Sowemimo said part of the deal is to help the promising tennis wunderkind have access to world-class facilities, which would help her achieve their aim of the player becoming the first Nigerian woman on the WTA Circuit.
“From what I have seen of her, there’s no doubt that she can become Africa’s number one; for her to become global number one or win Grand Slams and WTA tournaments, it’s going to be down to hard work from her part. What we can do is give her access to the right equipment, coaches and training programmes for her to achieve what she wants to achieve,” he added.
“We are aware of the economic situation, so we are reaching out to the corporate world to get them a talent that will create brand awareness for them and at the same time also satisfying their CSR initiative by giving back.”
Last week, Edwards alongside Suleiman Ibrahim and Daniel Adeleye travelled to Casablanca, Morocco, to feature in the 2016 ITF/CAT 12 & Under Talent Identification Programme. The event, which began on August 26, ends on Sunday, with over 80 players from 25 countries featuring.
Her trip was sponsored by Zenith Bank, courtesy of the TMC deal.
“Marylove has been on top of her game going by her recent performances particularly at the NNPC Junior Tennis Championship recently in Lagos,” Nigeria junior tennis head coach, Mohammed Ubale, said.
She returns to Nigeria a hero as she was crowned Africa’s number three seed in the U-12 category in Casablanca.
She lost 7-5, 6-7, 4-6 to her Moroccan opponent in the semifinal but came back to beat her Kenyan opponent 6-1, 6-1 in the third-place match.
Savage added, “She was in top shape ready for the Morocco tournament; she trained with boys and that really helped her game.
“It was an epic semifinal tie with the Moroccan opponent. Marylove lost the tough match that lasted three hours.
“The Moroccan used her home ground advantage because they train there everyday but Marylove gave a very good account of herself.”
She’s just 4ft 6in, but her fearless attributes and heart of a lioness continue to confound tennis stakeholders even outside Nigeria. A recent example was at the ITF/CAT African Junior Championship in Pretoria in March.
African officials were astonished by the 11-year-old’s sublime skills and how she easily dispatched her opponents. They probably didn’t believe that a girl of her age from the continent could be that immensely talented.
“I played in the girls U-12 category but I wanted to play in U-14 category but they didn’t allow me because of my age. I won the U-12 event easily; I was winning the games 6-0, so I wanted a tougher category,” she said.
Perhaps, her style and charisma could soon wow international tennis buffs and have them chanting the “Marylove, I’m in love with your game” chorus anytime the Nigerian rising star puts up some dazzling displays on the courts outside Nigeria’s shores.
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