From the start it didn’t really look like we were going to have a repeat of last year’s final. While Joseph Imeh’s half of the draw was relatively light as it seemed, Henry Atseye might have been bothered about his own section of the draw, which had second seed and title-favourite, Sylvester Emmanuel, third seed, Abdulmumin Babalola, Nigeria’s No.4, Thomas Otu, as well as the dangerous Michael Chima.
But just like last year when he went past an unfavourable draw to reach the final and eventually clinch the title, Atseye has done so again this week and is now on the verge of a successful title-defense. Must be a thing for the Rainoil Open?
Having lacked consistency in tournaments leading up to the Rainoil Open, Atseye’s campaign got off to a great start. He got past Philip Abayomi in the opening round and the unheralded Chinedu Iwuagbwu in the next one. Michael Chima, who was meant to put up a challenge, looked out of sorts and appeared to struggle through the second set with injury. After moving past Chima, Atseye ran into veteran Abdulmumin Babalola. Stretched to three sets, he managed to withstand the 33-year-old’s sizzling power, coming back from the brink of defeat more than once to set up a blockbuster semis showdown against Sylvester Emmanuel.
Emmanuel gained the upper hand earlier in their contest and took the first set. However, as the match progressed, Atseye raised his level to turn the match in his favour, before going on to seal a tight 4-6, 6-1, 7-5 victory.
Can he now cap off what already has been an excellent week by beating Imeh in the final again?
Imeh, after his victory over Uche Oparaoji in the semifinals, had appeared confident and said he doesn’t care about who he will face in the final. “It’s going to be a fresh start for me and I believe I can win,” the 21-year-old added, in reference to his dismal record in tournament finals.
Having breezed through the early rounds with usual ease, Imeh was taken to the edge by Emmanuel Idoko in the quarterfinals and by Uche Oparaoji in the semifinals. In both contests, the 21-year-old had to dig deep to stave off the attacks and reach yet another final.
In recent times, getting to a final hasn’t been Imeh’s problem; winning, has. The youngster has arguably been Nigeria’s best player for the past two years. Save the CBN Senior Open in June this year, Imeh has reached the finals of all national tournaments since February 2017 and won just one – the Rainoil/Ikoyi 1938 Masters. But it could be about to change. Before the tournament, the 2017 Rainoil Open finalist said, losing in finals is a challenge that he’s dealt with already and he believes he will turn things around.
Imeh was beaten in three sets by Atseye in last year’s final. Can he exact revenge and snap his losing streak in finals today or will Atseye reign supreme again?