Over the course of a breakthrough week at the Hamburg European Open, Noma Noha Akugue has made a strong case for herself as the future of German tennis.
Born just 20 kilometers down the road in Reinbek, Akugue, 19, earned a wild card for her main-draw debut this week. She vindicated that decision with a string of stellar victories, leading her all the way to the final. On Saturday, she will compete against Arantxa Rus for the title.
Ranked No.207, Noha Akugue has showcased both a well-rounded game and a competitive grit. She was able to find a way past Laura Pigossi's defensive clay wiles in the first round, saved two match points against Storm Hunter in the second round and outlasted Martina Trevisan in a physical quarterfinal that lasted more than 2 hours and 42 minutes. In the semifinals, Noha Akugue was in full flow from the start against former junior rival Diana Shnaider.
After defeating Shnaider, Noha Akugue spoke to wtatennis.com about how she's inspired by Naomi Osaka, her love of dance and why her forehand packs a punch.
Noha Akugue's father was a boxer and a Stefanie Graf fan
Noha Akugue says that her father, Ronald Obazelu, was never overly invested in the sport of tennis. He was a boxer, and that remains his preferred sport. But he emigrated from Nigeria to Germany in the 1990s at the height of 22-time Grand Slam champion Stefanie Graf's success and became a fan. A decade later, he enrolled his daughter in tennis classes at the age of 3.
Now, Noha Akugue describes her forehand as her favorite shot. Like Graf, the pace she can inject is remarkable and can hit winners from anywhere on the court. She's not sure about comparisons to her father, though.
"My forehand is stronger than my dad's punch," she said.
Considering the life of a traveling tennis player, Noha Akugue hasn't been able to visit Nigeria herself as much as she'd like -- only twice so far -- but her heritage is still important to her. She's proud of the fact that Afrobeats singer Rema hails from the same area as her father's family, Edo State. He's a particular favorite when it comes to her off-court passion for dancing. Noha Akugue's ultimate favorite genre is UK rap.
Noha Akugue's favorite is Naomi Osaka
Noha Akugue remembers exactly where she was when she watched Naomi Osaka win her first Grand Slam at the 2018 US Open -- at a junior tournament in Prague. It remains her favorite of the former World No.1's four major title runs.
"I like her poker face," she said. "She's also an aggressive player. She's similar to me, that's why I like her. It's also important to see a Black woman in tennis -- Serena as well, of course. It's good for young players."
Osaka's unflappable demeanor has been Noha Akugue's inspiration in her toughest moments in Hamburg this week. Whether recovering from a 6-0 set against her, facing match points or rolling with the twists and turns of scoreboard pressure, Noha Akugue's expression has rarely changed.
"I try to keep my emotions to myself," she said.
Noha Akugue isn't always successful, but it remains her goal.
"I don't know if you saw it, but I started crying in the [Trevisan] match under my towel," she said. "But I tried to remember to keep my poker face."
Noha Akugue has been on the German tennis radar for a while
All week, several luminaries of German tennis have been in the stands for Noha Akugue's matches. Billie Jean King Cup captain Barbara Rittner and tournament ambassador Andrea Petkovic are among those who have cheered her on to each milestone.
Noha Akugue has been on their radar for several years. Back in 2020, she won the German National Championships at the age of 17, and an impressed Rittner praised the "fast arm" that enabled the youngster to unleash spectacular power.
Since then, her progress was only slowed by a shoulder injury that sidelined her for the second half of 2021. Last year, Noha Akugue compiled a 47-23 record, including seven ITF finals to rise from No.708 to No.258, and this year she made her Grand Slam qualifying debut at Roland Garros.
"[Rittner and Petkovic] are really important for me, and they've been helping me," she said. "I'm happy and proud they've continued to believe in me."