12-year-old Hana Goda: The rising star of African table tennis 

The promising Egyptian is the reigning National Singles champion at just 12 years old, and is set to meet football icon Mo Salah who accepted her challenge of a table tennis match.

By Evelyn Watta

Hana Goda is one of Egypt’s youngest stars, a fast-rising talent with many tipping her as the next big thing in African table tennis.

The 12-year-old has got game. She is currently ranked first in the ITTF Cadets category, a position she has held since December 2019.

She is Egypt's youngest ever national champion.

When she began playing table tennis, the tables dwarfed her, but coaches found the perfect solution to suit her towering passion, despite her size.

“I loved table tennis. At table tennis they told me, 'you are too short!' So to accommodate me they had to cut the table.”

“I started playing when I was four years old. I did some handball, swimming and table tennis,” she said to the Olympic Channel in an exclusive interview from her home in Cairo.

Since then the wunderkind, an incredible addition to Egypt’s depth of talent, has enthralled the table tennis world with her poise, focus, and speed around the table.

Hana Goda at the 2019 ITTF World Cadet Challenge (Photo: ITTF)

The champions challenge: Mo Salah vs Hana Goda

January 2020 was a significant month for African table tennis.

The 12-year-old topped the ITTF under-15 women's world rankings, the first African and Arab player to gain the top spot.

It was an achievement that had been a long time coming for Hana.

In October 2019, she stunned the nation. She upset Africa number two Farah Abdel Aziz in the final of the women’s singles, a win that earned her a promotion to her club Al Ahly’s first team.

Hana beat the 27-year old 3-0 for the national title.

That remarkable achievement, one of 127 wins (from 152 matches) she played in 2019, even caught the attention of football icon and the country’s most popular athlete, Mohamed Salah.

The newly crowned champion challenged the Liverpool winger to a table tennis game.

She posted: “The Champions Challenge, Salah you cannot win every game. I challenge you to a table tennis game, the golden hands versus the golden legs.”

He answered: “Should I send Mecca, my daughter, first or I come along myself? Okay, I accept the challenge!”

Goda told the Olympic Channel she cannot wait to meet one of her heroes.

“I felt really excited and happy when mum told me I could get to meet him and challenge him [to a match]."

Shorter than the table

It is that level of confidence which she takes to the table whenever she is playing.

Her early days in sport were formed trailing her elder brother for his swimming sessions. But when she picked up the paddle, she knew which sport to choose.

“I was swimming before and did some gymnastics, but I felt I had a connection with table tennis, and I loved it the most,” she said.

“The coaches told me I was good at table tennis and I had the potential to be a champion later, from how well I was playing.”

“I love to play so much. When I rest for two days, I miss table tennis. I want to train. When I am playing, I feel like I have energy and I am so happy.”

She quickly learnt the ropes, and three years later she was all set for her international debut in Sweden.

“My first national event I was six years old. I lost from the first match but at my next match, I did a good job and won three matches.

"My first international event was at the Swedish Open, I lost most of the matches. I was too young, I was like seven.”

“I was not afraid of anything. I was playing free; I didn’t have any stress. I didn’t feel like I need to win; I just needed to play and have fun, play well,” she continued on how she remained composed under pressure.

“I remember everyone was watching me when I was playing because I was shorter than the table or just about the same height. People were like, ‘What is she doing?’ How can she play when she is the same height as the table?’ But for me I was happy because everyone was watching.” – Hana Goda

Olympic dream

Playing at the top level – mostly accompanied by her mother Radwa Azab, a trained clinical pathologist who resigned from her job to support her daughter's sporting ambition – greatly boosted her game.

She medalled at the 2016 Algerian International Championships and followed it up with wins at the 2019 Africa Junior championships and a few months later at the ITTF Junior Circuit Junior & Cadet Open in Portugal.

These successes ignited her Olympic dream.

“I dream about the Olympics every day. I hope I can get the first Olympic medal [for Egypt] in table tennis. I really want the gold medal and not any medal.”

“I always watch the Olympic Channel on YouTube; I hope one day I can go to the Olympics and be on the Olympic Channel and here I am.

“In the World Championships, I want to play in the finals and also get the gold medal,” she said with a giggle.

At her tender age, the promising star is already playing coach to her six-year-old sister who has followed in her footsteps.

“Before me, no one played table tennis in my family. My sister is now playing and she’s very good.

“My sister is getting better because I train with her sometimes. I want her to be as good as me so that we can play in the World Championships final or doubles at the Olympics.”- Hana Goda

The making of a future star

Intense sessions training abroad have elevated her game.

“I have been to China many times for training camps. The first time when I was seven years old. I was to go back this year but because of Covid-19 we can’t go,” said the young star who has been described by the President of the Egyptian Federation of Table Tennis Moataz Ashour as a "miracle" and hope for the sport.

“When I went to China, I learnt a lot from them. They are always focused on one thing at training and want to improve all the time. I want to be fast and strong. My strokes are pretty good now and I have improved a lot my backhand and forehand.

“So, when I play the points, I focus on one thing not maybe play and think I have some homework. When I have training, I just focus on training, when I have homework I focus only on homework.”

“I always love to watch the Chinese players because they are very fast. I love Chen Meng and Sun Yingsha, and I also love Timo Boll from Germany,” said Hana, who once shared a club with her local heroine Dina Meshref, the nine-time African champion.

“I like the style of the Chinese because they are really consistent on the table. For Timo and other Europeans, they are so focused on their matches and they don’t miss balls. I hope I can play like them in future.”

Getting used to fame

After winning so many prestigious junior events, Egypt’s bright talent is now touted as Africa’s biggest table tennis prospect.

The shy girl, who enjoys "reading novels, drawing and colouring", has received a great deal of media attention that has made her a star amongst her friends.

“I don’t go to school a lot because I have tournaments and training. But when I go, everyone in the school is like, ‘Oh Hana is here…’

"I am like, 'guys, I am normal, I am not famous'… but everyone knows me.

“That’s good and that makes me want to do better because everybody is looking at me and I want to be a good role model.

“I hope that I can [be the future of African table tennis]. I really want to put Egypt and Africa’s name high on the table tennis map.”

Hana, who enjoys "studying English and Maths", has her present and future mapped out for now.

“After training at tournaments, I take the books with me and after I study. I love reading books, I love reading stories as they clear my mind. I don’t like to use the phone.

“I want to be good at table tennis and be good at school so I can have something else to do after playing. But when I grow up, I want to work at the International Table Tennis Federation or at the Olympics.”

Her advice to upcoming youngsters?

“It’s better to focus and love what you do. If you love what you do you can be anything you want. If you love to play table tennis you can be a good player. If you like another sport you can excel by training and working hard.”