A year ago, Ibrahima Diaw had no plans to compete at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.
He had been waiting for his chance with Senegal, and had given up playing for Mali, who did not have a table tennis federation.
The 2008 European Youth champion had not played for France as a senior and had resigned to playing league games.
Then he got the clearance that changed his life.
Diaw went from, “Not having the Olympics in mind,” to becoming the first Senegalese to qualify for Tokyo 2020.
He earned his ticket in style.
The first steps for Ibrahima Diaw
Ibrahima Diaw was plucked from the football pitch by his school coach, who saw his talent and great athletic ability could work for table tennis.
Growing up in Paris, young Diaw shadowed his uncle, who played professional football at a local club.
But Iba, as he is popularly known to mates, quickly cut ties with midfield dreams and began learning tricks on the table.
“The first time I touched the table, I was seven. I got addicted with the feeling of playing table tennis. I liked to touch the ball. It was quite exciting when I touched it and hit it well.”- Ibrahima Diaw to Olympic Channel
He earned a rare call up to represent France at the 2008 European Youth Championship in his new sport.
Speaking exclusively to Olympic Channel, Diaw explained how his first national team call up was unexpected.
“This was quite a surprise. The system was that you are part of a training centre, and from there you qualify to play in the Open, where you can get the chance to qualify for the European Youth Championships.
“I was not in the centre, but I had played really well at the national events. Then I got my debut for France and we won the European Championship that year,” he recalled of his first major tournament, when he was only 15.
Iba playing pro
His first league game, in 2010, was also by chance.
Drafted into the French club Argentan, the teenager was selected to fill in for seven- time Olympian Segun Toriola. Diaw stepped up and shone.
“Segun was injured for an important match, that would determine the teams’ promotion from the second division. The coach wasn’t sure about playing me. He asked Segun to try and play even if he was injured. He felt an injured Segun would play better than me.
“But Segun told him, 'trust, Iba he will do it. I know he's ready.'
"I played the match and won 11-09 [in the] last game, and that point gave us the title to win Pro B.” Diaw added.
He became a regular in the French League, and has since played for Nice, Saint Denis, Metz, and is currently attached to Roanne table tennis club.
Hitting with the crème de la crème
Diaw chose to nurture his game at his girlfriend’s hometown in Copenhagen, explaining to Olympic Channel that the decision has meant he's been able to to train with some of the best in the game.
“In Denmark, the structure is really good,” he said of his decision to stay in the Scandinavian capital and commute every fortnight to play for his club Roanne near Lyon.
“I'm training at the Olympic Centre in Denmark with some of the best players from here and around Europe.
“I have trained with Olympic bronze medallist Michael Maze, he was one of my idols when I started table tennis, so for me to share and gain some knowledge from him was so special.
“Another good player I have practiced with is Liam Pitchford from England.”
But his best moment was the 'unbelievable' meeting with German legend and former World No.1 Timo Boll at the 2018 World Cup in his hometown in France.
Diaw became a sparring partner for the three-time Olympic medallist.
“He was so nice, so simple, so humble and genuinely interested in what I am doing. I had so many questions to ask him, you know, and I was like, ‘don't ask too much. You know, he has to get ready for his match,” he recalled.
“I learned a lot. I learned some skills and some shots. What I found amazing with him is that he's able to change trajectory whenever he touched the ball, something I didn’t know. When I touched the ball, I tried to hit the ball as hard as possible.”
The chase for international caps
The 27-year-old has adopted various styles and cultural approaches in his decade-long professional career.
Diaw gained invaluable insights into the game.
But the 2019 Africa Games semi-finalist craved more.
Born to a Senegalese dad and Malian mother in France, he weighed his options and cut straight to the chase.
“I wanted to have an international career, but it was difficult to play for France, especially with the ITTF rule that allows only six players per country to play internationally,” Diaw, whose father died when he was 12, told the Olympic Channel.
“I was raised by my mum and I wanted to represent Mali at first, but they didn't have any federation. I knew that was the moment for me to represent Senegal.”
In April 2019, Diaw was told he was eligible to play for Senegal as soon as the World Championships in Budapest.
“It was a crazy day. I was playing playstation with my friend, and then I just got an email from the ITTF telling me that I was cleared to play for Senegal at the World Championships in two days. - Ibrahima Diaw to Olympic Channel.
"There were no matches in French league then, nothing. I had not prepared at all for top level play. But I went.”
Ibrahima Diaw's long-awaited debut
He had waited so long, and Diaw jumped at the opportunity to play at the top level.
“It was stressful and exciting. I was in a hotel with the Chinese national team. I found myself having breakfast with Ma Long, you know, Ma Long! [and] Fan Zhendong. I really couldn't believe it!” he recalled of his hasty debut.
"When I got to the table for the first match, I was like, ‘stop dreaming now. The work is starting’."
“At that point is when I also realized that I was playing at the World Championships, and started to think about the Olympics. A day before the World Championships, I didn't have the Olympics in mind.” - Ibrahima Diaw
With his plans and dreams clearer, Diaw set himself high targets to boost his rankings.
And in six months, he was listed among the world’s best 70 players.
“When I got the passport, I needed the world ranking really quick. Because I didn't want to play, like, Quadri Aruna in the first round of the qualification. I played lots of tournaments to have the highest ranking possible before February 2020.”
The big break…and the momentous Olympics ticket
There were plenty of positives from his tight schedule.
Last November Diaw won his first title, the Indonesia Open doubles, and reached the singles semi-final.
It was an historic win by a Senegalese at an international table tennis event, and it fired his ambition to make it to the top.
He got his chance against Africa’s number one player Aruna, at the African Olympic qualifiers in Tunisia last February.
And the 10-year match experience in him soared.
“It was a revenge match against Aruna, because at the African Cup in August in Lagos, I lost to him and I really felt that I had the level to beat him.”
“Aruna has a good forehand and when he touched the frame it was almost impossible to control the ball. I stayed close to the table, tried to put a lot of pressure on him,” he recounted.
“When I was leading 3-0, I saw the Olympics. The match was stopped for 10 minutes as he felt some pain on his hamstring. When we got back, we played topspin, topspin, topspin, topspin... I was like, ‘Is he really injured?’ But I put pressure on him and finally I beat the best African player. It was unbelievable!” Diaw added of his (11-7, 11-8, 11-8, 6-11, 11-13, 11-7) victory against the top seed.
“I'm lucky and proud to say I will represent Senegal at the Olympics. Even more special is that I will be the first Senegalese to qualify for Tokyo Olympics.” - Ibrahima Diaw.
Olympic delay… a blessing for Diaw
With his Olympic ticket secured, Diaw was relieved when the Tokyo 2020 Games were postponed for a year, due to the coronavirus pandemic.
He plans to take advantage of the additional months.
“My first goal after the qualifier was to come home and then practice, practice, practice, and boost my rankings. With the Olympic Games postponed, I have a longer time to improve my skills and be ready.”
It is not only more play time, but he also hopes he can build on a winning partnership with his coach at major tournaments.
“We have this long-distance relationship with my coach Nathanael Molin, who is also the coach at Metz. Unfortunately, I haven’t had enough funds take him with me to tournaments, and I hope that I can find a sponsor or something. All the best athletes have a coach they work with all the time, and it's not a coincidence. “
Game on for African table tennis
Africa’s number three is full of ambition to make it to the top, but he’s realistic about his chances.
“My short-term goal would be to have an African title, before I can start talking about the World Championships,” said the 2019 Africa Cup quarter-finalist.
“I was really surprised, when I played in Africa, you don’t have so much information on the players. Most African players are playing well. But unfortunately, they're not able to play globally.”
Diaw feels Africa’s current crop of players are the future of table tennis.
“Whenever I play in Africa is it's hard. I must be ready to perform well and be very good. To be OK is not enough I need to be good. I need to be very good to win.”
“I didn’t know that table-tennis was so big in Nigeria. I think they have one of the best atmospheres in the world. The fans love and understand the game.
“I was surprised when I saw at one stadium there was a huge, huge picture of Segun. Even in France, you cannot find Simon Gauzy's picture at any stadium.”
Dakar 2022 Ambassador
It’s super prime time, not only for Africa and it’s new star, but also the opportune moment to help boost the sport in his adopted nation.
He will serve as a table tennis Ambassador for the Dakar 2022 Youth Olympic Games (YOG).
“Unfortunately, in Senegal table tennis is not popular. But we are now trying to develop a lot because of the Youth Olympic Games in 2022.
"There is a project to build a new hall. And then we have a project in schools. We have donated equipment. We trained school teachers, and shared with them the basic of table tennis…how to warm up, how to stand, how to hold the racket and the rules of the game.”
Diaw is hopeful that by the time he takes up that role in 2022, he'll have made his mark at an Olympics for the first time.
Maybe Iba will be there helping other young boys and girls find a love of the sport, as he himself did just a few years ago.