Nigeria has recorded little success when it comes to lawn tennis. In this country, tennis is still regarded as an elitist sport and no doubt, capital intensive. Little wonder, Nduka Odizor’s fourth round feat at the 1983 Wimbledon is still a reference point, 33 years after. However, 11-year old Marylove Edwards looks good to turn things around for Nigeria. With 17 titles in her kitty, both locally and internationally, and heading for the famous America tennis camp (IMG) in Florida, that produced such stars as Andre Agasi, the Williams sisters (Venus and Serena) Marylove sees herself playing her first Tennis Grand Slam in the next five years. Her father, Eddy, projects that the next eight years will see the first African winning a Grand slam title with her daughter. Kunle Adewale writes on how “Project Marylove” began seven years ago and the ultimate aim

Though, just an 11-year-old Junior Secondary School (JSS 11) pupil, her confidence is rousing. Speaking with her gives an impression that she grew up in a high-brow area in Lagos; rather, Marylove Edwards was born and brought up in a two-roomed bungalow, in Agege.

Her romance with tennis started seven years back as a four-year-old kid.

“I’m a sports person and always wanted my children to go into sports and as soon as Marylove was four, I took her to the tennis court to begin training. I still take her Monday to Thursday while her personal coach takes her through Friday to Sunday,” said her father, Eddy Edwards.

For young Edwards, her father has been the brains behind her success. “My father has been very supportive; he has invested so much in developing me. He hired the services of a coach in the National Stadium, Surulere, Lagos to train me, while at home; he spends time to train me daily after school. He has been very encouraging, ensuring that I attain the height I want to as a player. The training kits such as shoes, soft balls, rackets, and sportswear are provided by him. The tennis circuits I have attended have been sponsored by him. My father has been everything to me,” she said.

According to her coach, Kayode Savage, it was as if her development has been fast-tracked.

“The level at which she is developing is tremendous and unbelievable. She won her first tournament at eight and we felt that by the time she’s 12 or 14 maybe she will be playing U-12 but she’s already rated eight in Africa; already in the Under-14. She has great determination and her never say die attitude is one of her greatest strength. Even when she’s down, she keeps fighting on and this is very good considering her age. She trains four to five hours daily,” Salvage said.

The proprietor of her school, Bayonle High School, Bayo Lawal, also have kind words for the tennis wonder kid. “She is a very hard working girl and had not allowed her stardom to get into her head. She has regard for constituted authority and she is really inspiring her colleagues especially in areas of sports.

With 17 titles in the kitty at a young age, it is not surprising therefore that the Nigerian tennis prodigy is already targeting playing in a Grand Slam in the next five years.

“Growing up, I always watch the Williams sisters, Maria Sharapova, Novak Djokovic and hoping that one day, I’ll be like one of them and even better their records. So, in the next five years, I hope to have a shot at the Grand Slam,” she said.

Edwards dream of becoming a tennis superstar may come to fruition, thanks to the involvement of Temple Management Company, TMC, an event firm involved in the entertainment, sports, media and arts, which was magnetised by her ingenuity.

“With the partnership with TMC, who are now driving her higher, they have made the project easier. She now participates in tournaments and circuits outside Nigeria. She trains with ease and travelling to tournaments is done on time. In the next five to six years, I do see her participating in World Tennis Association tournaments. We are aiming at the top in the nearest future,” her father said.

Before TMC came on board, Marylove’s major challenges had been travelling worldwide for tournaments due to the unavailability of tournaments in Nigeria, but she is looking beyond the continent after the TMC deal.

In a chat with the head of sports, TMC, Koye Sowemimo, who holds an English FA Level 1 football coach and a licensed FIFA match agent, he said it was love at first sight between his company and the 11-year-old.

“We were notified of a young and upcoming tennis star and I took a big interest in watching her play at the National Stadium. Immediately I saw her, I realised she was a big talent and she has what it takes to be a champion. Afterwards, I met with her parents and we struck an agreement to manage her career for the next five years and even beyond. She is different from the usual traditional tennis player. She has a very unique style and generates a lot of power, but the most important aspect of her was that I have seen is her hunger for the sport. I’ve watched her trainings and during matches; she is just amazing and she is optimistic that she would one day become a world champion.

“As part of the arrangement to sell her to the sporting world, TMC has put plan in place to send Marylove to the best tennis camp- the IMG Tennis Camp in Florida,” Sowemimo said. Sowemimo however admitted that making her win a Grand Slam and WTA tournaments would involve a lot of hard work on her part.

On how the girl has been able to cope with tennis and education, the father said: “Most parents thought it’s not possible but with proper planning it could be worked out. Because I am self-employed, I have been able to manage my time. I’ve been able to keep my life and time for her. After school, there is somebody on ground to pick her to the tennis court for her training by 3:30pm and by 6:30, she is done with her training. When she gets home, she does her assignments and that is how we have been operating in the past seven years without interruption. We have been steady and focused without getting tired; and have been pushing and pushing to make her the best.”

Older Edwards, however, admitted it’s not all Uhuru, especially in such situations when she had to go for tournaments outside the shores of the country while school is in session.

“Nothing could be perfect, but as much as possible to balance things, I have a kind of mutual agreement with the school management, so that when she goes for competition, on her return, the school tried to update her on things she had missed. The school and I tried as much as possible to make things up for her,” he noted.

For those who are of the opinion that he might have been inspired by the father of the Williams sisters- Richard Williams, who was their first coach while they were still kids, he said: “I was not inspired or influenced by anybody. My first intuition was to allow my children to toe the line of sports and be the best. Her younger sibling is into football and doing very well.