In 2003, former Minister of Sports, Steven Akiga and former Director of Sports, Patrick Ekeji, argued before the Supreme Council for Sports in Africa (SCSA) to include tennis as a medal sport at the Eighth All-African Games in Abuja, because the Nigerian tennis team had been excluded from participating in the games. Since then the President of the Nigerian Tennis Federation (NTF), Engineer Sani Ndanusa, outlined a plan to put into place “proper machinery and mechanisms” for tennis development in Nigeria.
When the tennis legend Mr. Lawrence Awopegba died last month at the age of 67, the Nigerian tennis community in the United States mourned his death. Mr. Awopegba represented Nigeria at regional and international competitions in the 1960’s and 1970’s. He became a national coach in the late 1970’s. He had a vision for tennis development in Nigeria. He became a successful businessman, owning a gas station.On July 4, 2005, the Nigerian tennis community in the United States met in Houston, Texas, to discuss among other things the launching of a new organization to be called the Nigerian Tennis Foundation, USA, to address the state of the game in Nigeria, and to talk about the well-being of Nigerian tennis players in the United States. The proposed organization is intended to be a non-profit, non-partisan tennis and educational organization, whose mission is to facilitate the growth of tennis in all the states of Nigeria.
For almost thirty years, Mr. Awopegba had a vision of seeing the nation’s budding stars compete in all four Grand Slam tennis tournaments in the world: the Australian Open, the French Open, the Wimbledon, and the United States Open. Nduka Odizor and Tony Mmoh were the last two Nigerian players featured prominently in main draws of these Grand Slam tournaments. Odizor got to round sixteen at Wimbledon. Mmoh won several rounds. Nduka, Mmoh, and Sadiq Abdullahi represented Nigeria at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea, although, all of them lost in the early rounds. David Imonite, Sule Ladipo, Remi Osho, Friday Otabor, and Abdullahi were also featured in many satellites, challengers, and Super Series tennis tournaments. Today, the Nigerian flag bearers are: Jonathan Igbinovia, Babalola Abdul-Mumini, Toyin Dairo, Clara Udofa, and Osaro Amadi. Junior players like Shehu Lawal, Adewunmi Adeniji, Ibukun Ilesanmi, Ephraim Okwudile, and others have been identified to carry the national tennis flag.
On the ladies’ side, Miss Rolake Olagbegi was also featured briefly in one or two Virginia Slim tournaments. In Nigeria, the following female players contributed immensely to the growth of the game: Mrs. Nkong, Mrs. Awopebga, Vero Oyibokia, Letty Enyogai, Nosa Imafidon, Aishatu Adamu, Rose Dike, Cecilia Nnadozie, Anne Abimiku, Esther Onyekwelu, and others.
Those were the glory days of Nigerian tennis. The standards of tennis were very high. The level of competition was also very high. There were many weekly and monthly junior and senior tennis tournaments, as well as countless junior and intermediate developmental programs. I remember the mood in the country during the late 1970’s, when former President General Yakubu Gowon’s regime institutionalized the federal character and social programs that paved the way for gains in sports, particularly tennis.
Since then, the nation has struggled to sustain that level of competence and professionalism in her athletes and in sports administrators. According to Nigerian International Athletes Association (NIAA, 2006), the “problem is that Nigeria has failed over the years to develop and implement programs designed specifically to discover talented athletes at a young age and groom them into international stars.” (Strategic Plan for the Sustainable Development of Sports at the Grassroots in Nigeria. www.niaausa.org). Ndanusa, in his re-engineering project for tennis development, believes that strong support and encouragement from the government should be the first step. In addition, he plans to bring in a foreign technical coach to develop programs and train other coaches.
David Imonite, a former national champion, founded the Miracle Tennis Resources Centre; he and Godwin Kienka, Director of Tennis Academy, have organized a series of junior tournaments and training programs in order to discover promising young players. One of the most successful ones is the first-ever Under 24 National Tennis Circuit. The circuit has four tournaments: T & M Open, Edel Build Open, the Nigerian Bottling Company Open, and the Lawrence Awopegba Open. The circuit produced players such as Segun Akinloye (Edo State), Richard Osuagu(Lagos State), Abdulraham Idi (Gongola State), Amechi Nweje (Lagos State), Sunday Ogundele (Lagos State), James Anukam (Imo State), Tivlumu Koypya (Benue State), Jide Sanyaolu (Lagos State), as well as many others. Many have emigrated to the United States and elsewhere to follow their interest in tennis and further their education. Many of them are now contributing members of their communities, designing and developing tennis programs.
Sadiq Abdullahi, a former national champion who worked with the Nigeria Tennis Federation Player Development Program under the leadership of Alhaji Adejumo, organized a summer player development clinic for talented young players. These programs provide young people the necessary knowledge, skills, dispositions, and incentives at a time when the nation dominated African sports.
Where is Nigeria’s national development plan today as it prepares for the next All-African games in Algiers, the Afro-Asia Games in China, and the Olympic Games in China? In spite of the modest gains made by these players and the solid foundation laid by Alhaji Adejumo, Awopedga, Onibokun, Egbusin, Ake, Alhaji Isa, Kehinde Ajayi, Imonitie, Kienka, and others, in the 1970’s and 1980s, there has been no significant progress at the junior and senior levels of the game in the 1990’s and 2000’s. One expects that by now an impressive number of Nigerian junior and senior players would represent the nation at prestigious regional and international tennis tournaments. Flimsy defensive arguments seem to include the lack of quality junior tournaments, a dearth of tennis role models, a lack of tennis sponsorship, a weak grassroots program, and ineffective tennis coaches.
Tennis programs, like many other sports programs, lose momentum when coaches, players, and sports administrators simply give up. Many are dissatisfied with how they were treated by the tennis federation in the past. Until the Nigerian tennis community in the Diaspora organizes itself, puts a long- term strategic plan in place, gains long-term financial support and commitment, and develops a partnership among local clubs, schools, state tennis associations and National Tennis Federation with the National Sports Commission’s endorsement, we should expect to see Awopegba’s vision vanish. We will not see more junior tennis players obtain college scholarships abroad and become teaching or touring professionals representing the nation in national, regional, international competitions, and bringing glory to Nigeria.
However, Awopegba’s vision can survive if individuals step in, like former President General Ibraham Babangida, who realized the importance of supporting tennis competitions and donated two gold- plated trophies to the tennis federation in 1987. The tournament, The President Cup, is aimed at fostering Nigeria’s relationships socially, economically, and politically with other African nations. Government at all levels and businesses can also step in.
Coach Awopegba has passed away, but with a reenergized tennis federation boss and a tennis community in the United States, the time appears right to begin a constructive dialogue. There also needs to be a recommitment to the ideals and vision of Coach Awopegba, Alhaji Adejumo, and others.