From Street To Stardom: Emotional Story Of Mohammed Okandeji
The trajectory of some people’s lives often appear like scripts written before their existence. One of such stories is that of Mohammed Okandeji.
At first glance, the brevity of this young man’s stature will definitely make you doubt his age but if you engage him in a conversation, you’ll know exactly why he appears tough on the court, always.
For someone who took to tennis at a very advanced age, this young man is doing very well for himself, and those who have watched him play can confirm that he does not play like one who started hitting balls for the first time a little over a year ago.
But how did this 12-year-old player grow so fast despite not growing up with the ambition to become a tennis player? That’s where Coach Uzor Okiti comes in.
Like most dutiful kids on the streets of Lagos Island, Okandeji was washing plates at his grandmother’s shop when Coach Uzor, who was always frequenting the shop noticed his tenacity and asked if he was interested in sports.
In an emotion-laden chat with Nigeria Tennis Live, the At-tahleel High School, Onikan, Lagos student dug deep into how his life would not remain the same after that encounter.
“I was in my grandma’s shop washing plates when Coach Uzor Okiti, a customer at the shop (she sells food items) asked if I liked sports and felt like playing tennis.
“He told my mum to take me to the tennis club if I wanted to play tennis and one week after starting training, I played my first tournament and won only one match.
“For my first eleven months in tennis, I used to cry after losing my matches but I did not give up. After a while, I discovered that I had played four finals; won two and lost two.
“My coach asks me to always play as best as I can and not play to the crowd, he always says I should not listen to the crowd and focus on myself.
“He always says I should not try to play as a professional, that I should play as he taught me and as I know. And that whenever people are talking to Me, I should only play as he taught me and ignore them,” Okandeji, who sounded immensely grateful to Coach Uzor, narrated.
If there is anything that will likely draw your attention to this petit player, it is his unflinching passion. First bump, loud screams and upright posture.
But he was not any of these before he started playing tennis as he revealed that he was a very stubborn player whom many expected to be one of ‘those kids’ in the neighbourhood. His introduction to tennis has changed that trajectory.
“I am a very playful person and people always say that I am stubborn. I used to play football before but it’s a very rough game, until my coach introduced me to tennis.
“I really love tennis now, and I want to become a pro and go around the world to learn new things,” the finalist at the recently concluded Invitational Tennis Tournament said with a flush on his face.
Like a script from Nollywood movies, Okandeji’s happiest day since he started playing tennis is also his saddest. Nobody could have written a better script, yes?
According to him: “My happiest day was also my saddest day since I started playing tennis. Happiest because I played the final of the Sanwo-Olu tournament and had a lot of people watching.
“Saddest day because I lost to someone whom I had beaten twice before. People asked if I was joking or if I was destined to lose the finals.”
If you are familiar with the Nigerian adage that says that one person gives birth to a child while the entire community raises that child, that ‘child’ is Okandeji.
After being snapped up by Coach Uzor, he got his first racket from another customer at his grandmother’s shop. “He is also at the club, the Lagos Lawn Tennis Club, Onikan,” the grateful youngster added.
Even though he does not know too many Nigerian players, as one who never forgets good deeds, our young champ will never forget Christopher Bulus for ‘showing him love’ when the US-based Nigerian star recently returned to Nigeria.
“My favourite Nigerian player is Christopher Bulus because he is a faithful person and he has love for people.
“When he came to Nigeria, he brought strings for all the players in the club and drinks,” Okandeji said with a beautiful smile on his face.
He also recalls, fondly, that he idolizes Rafael Nadal and Diego Schwartzman, but his love for the latter stems from the similarity in their outlook.
This he confirmed by saying: “I love Schwartzman because people call me Diego Shortman because I’m short like Diego”.
His ambitions of growing up to become an athlete still remains really solid on his mind, as he also wants to become an engineer.
Okandeji whose mother worked as a cook in a restaurant and now stays in her mum’s shop to sell rice believes that with his parents’ efforts, he can reach any height.
The younger of two siblings barely has his dad around as the senior Okandeji works as a Civil Defence Officer whose current base is Kwara State.
Like Coach Uzor who took a chance on this amazing talent, and has refined him into a fine tennis player who maximizes every opportunity to show his gratitude, this young man needs someone else to take a chance on him and sponsor his tennis ambitions.
Nigeria Tennis Live will keep tabs on the activities of this young player who seems destined for the top, and share details of his development with our ardent readers and followers.