BY ROMULUS HUTA
WHEN Popai Leong steps onto the tarmac at the Henderson International Airport to board his Nadi-bound flight next month, the young lad knows well at the back of his mind that he’s in for another serious tennis business.
18 year old Popai is one of the players named in the six-member Solomon Islands team for the Oceania Tennis Nations Cup.
The one-week tournament will be held at Lautoka from May 31 to June 5.
The other five representatives alongside Popai includes Fiji-based quartet which comprised Benjamin Joel Junior, Graham Mani, Prudence Bird and Zorika Morgan and home-based Doreen Ningalo.
Leong and Ningalo are the only two home-based members in the team.
Representing Solomon Islands in international competitions overseas is not something new for Popai.
In the previous years he had represented Solomon Islands abroad by participating in the West Pacific Regional Competition and the Pacific Oceania Junior Championship.
The satisfactory results he achieved in those competitions qualifies him to an opportunity to don the national jumper for a second competitive outing when he received a call to take part in the 2015 Commonwealth Youth Games in Apia.
The dream run extended into last year’s Pacific Mini Games in Vanuatu, when he broke through into the national tennis squad marking his senior debut at the Korman tennis complex in Port Vila.
“I think I have come a long way and I hope experiences gained throughout the years will help my performance in the Fiji Open and the Nations Cup.
“This would be my second time to represent the country at the senior level and I’m excited with the experience.
“I’m ready to compete and looks forward to the tournament.
“My aim is to achieve a good result at the event and I’m using this as a build up toward future senior international representations,” the former Bishop Epalle student said.
As a young lawn tennis player who has a very bright future ahead of him in the sport, his aim is to emulate the footsteps of his uncle, the former Solomon Islands number one and the former Association of Tennis Professional (ATP) ranked netter Michael Leong.
Popai is the son of Michael’s elder brother.
According to records, since after the reigning years of former Pacific number one and Solomon Islander the late Lency Tenai, Michael became the next most-profiled and highly rated Solomon Islands tennis player ever to come out bracing the Davis Cup courts across the Asia Pacific region for team Pacific Oceania for quite a number of years.
To mention a little bit more on his credential as an athlete, Michael was the winning recipient of the only gold medal Solomon Islands won during the 2007 South Pacific Games (now Pacific Games) in Apia when he defeated Samoan and number one seed Juan Langton in two easy straight sets.
According to Popai, those achievements spelt out above are stringing benchmarks that Popai aims to reach and surpass with his racquet one day in the not too distant future.
“My uncle advises me a lot. He’s my mentor.
“He always encourages me to remain calm and focus during any match.
“Discipline and commitment are the other areas he always talk to me about.
“Always play with a winning mentality.
“If you have the right attitude when taking on any opponent on the court, you can easily win,” an unwavering Popai stressed when asked about some of the advices he often get from his uncle Michael.
Meawhile, Popai and his fellow national team members will participate in the Fiji Open set for May 23 to 27 at the Denerau Golf and Racquet Complex in Nadi before heading into the Oceania Tennis Nations Cup kicking off May 31 in Lautoka.