By Onochie Anibeze
SEGUN Dosunmu tried to control his emotions at the National Stadium Wednesday.
Sadiq Abdullahi had caused all around to feel same way. He was visiting the country for the first time in over 20 years. Now, an Adjunct Professor at Florida State University, Sadiq is home for a brief vacation although on the invitation of sports minister Ndanusa.
But the patriot in him would not let him just jolly around and return to base. He has gone around, taken note of the state of our sports and is more determined than ever before to do something for the society that he said gave him so much. But while savouring the lollies of the time with regard to sponsorship and exposure to education, Sadiq and his contemporaries worked so hard that they even deserved more. They showed hunger while playing the game of tennis.
That earned them good ranking in the world at the time. Nduka Odizor, Tony Mmoh, Sadiq Abdullahi and David Imonitie were among the best players in the continent and reasonably respected globally.
It was at the same time we had Rolake Olagbegi, now Mrs. Rolake Kassim, who was the first Nigerian lady to play in WTA circuits. Sadiq and his contemporaries played great tennis, ranked reasonably well, at least, from top 100 where Odizor once hit 64 to 300.
South Africa was still under ban for their apartheid policies, so Nigeria was rated the best tennis country in Africa. How times have changed. Now the best Nigerian player is Sunday Emmanuel whose ranking is beyond 1000. It was so bad that in 2002 Benin Republic beat Nigeria here in Lagos in the Davis Cup. It was a weekend Segun would never forget.
He has been a staff of the Nigeria Tennis Federation for years. He was there in Benin during the Sadiq era when Nigeria had just one match to win and qualify into the prestigious World Group. Odizor did not come for the match and it fell on Sadiq and Mmoh to perform the wonders. When Sadiq took the first set in the first singles match against Meno Oosting, the entire Ogbe Stadium was vibrating.
But it was a tie that Oosting won for Netherlands and we all gnashed our teeth, regretting that Odizor could not make it to Nigeria to lead us into the World Group. But it was our greatest moment in the Davis Cup. The story has since changed. From Euro Africa Zone then to the Group Three of the zone now. It is pathetic.
Tennis, like other sports in Nigeria, has taken a deep plunge. Sadiq was at the National Stadium Wednesday to start a four day tennis clinic for young players and coaches. He is doing this for free. He had done some in Abeokuta and Kaduna. Segun Dosunmu was among those who milled around him and recalled his days and what has been happening since they left the scene.
â€œThis is Sadiq, Onochie, this is Sadiq,â€ he repeated as if he was introducing the man I covered prominently as a tennis reporter. His eyes were heavy. â€œHe was among those who gave us name. Iâ€™m happy that you are here, Onochie. We stopped seeing you for long. Tennis is missing you but we understand. You may not have players and actions to drive you into covering the game the way you did before. But donâ€™t leave the game. Look at Sadiq. Oh God, how I wish things could be good again.
I remember that Davis Cup in Benin and I remember how things went so bad that Benin Republic beat us here years after. We beat some good European countries then but now we struggle against African countries that could look us in the face in Sadiqâ€™s time.Â Onochie, let me tell you a story. I was strong when my father died. I took it as a man would.
But it was different the day Benin Republic beat us. I cried like a baby and later developed heart problem. It was here (pointing at the locker room) that they rushed me into before I received medical attention.
That is my story, Onochie. I did not cry when my father died but I did when Nigeria was beaten. Now Sadiq is here talking tennis again. He has met with the sports minister and there are hopes that they can start something for tennis. Iâ€™m happy, very happy and hopeful. The minister is also the tennis federation chairman. This is the great chance we have been praying for. Sadiq has the spirit to work, to change things if allowed.â€
So much passion for this exciting sport that was so much tonic for me in my teething days of sports reporting. It has remained so till date. The problem I have always had was clearly pointed out by Segun. There are no more players to be followed. There are no more great tournaments to cover. I believe in Nigeria even if our leaders donâ€™t. I want to remain a Nigerian.
Thatâ€™s why I would rather write on Rangers, Shooting Stars, Enyimba, Kano Pillars or Insurance than dissipate energy on Chelsea, Arsenal or Manchester United. But I appreciate good football and would like our teams to raise their standards. I can watch European teams but will not campaign for them. Why should I when we have our own problems?
I would rather campaign for our own than personally promoting them unless such promotions are intended to make our people learn. But it must, therefore be in proper perspective.Â I may not impress many who chant foreign clubs, fight for them, engage in all sorts of showmanship but have no link with these clubs. Many of them are just noise makers and not real fans of the clubs they claim to adore.
Manchester United visited Abuja and played Portsmouth and about 2,000 fans watched the game. Even on the day the club was formed, they had never seen such scanty crowd. Never. It happened only in Nigeria. And when their match is on television those noise makers wonâ€™t allow us rest. They are no real fans. The real ones will follow their team. Iâ€™m an apostle of the Nigerian athlete.
And since tennis died in Nigeria it affected my reportage of the sport even as I get thrilled watching the game at top level. Iâ€™m not leaving tennis, I promise Segun. But my message to tennis followers is to join me in appealing to the sports minister to champion the cause of the game in Nigeria.
If he didnâ€™t have sports background courtesy of his chairmanship of the tennis federation, he probably would not be sports minister today.
The media campaign for President Yarâ€™Adua to appoint, as sports minister, a member of the sports family was loud and the President so obliged. He probably would have been posted to another ministry but for his sports background.
Tennis brought him to us and charity should begin at home. He should agree with Sadiq and probably Rolake Olagbegi on the way forward. The brains to do the work are not lacking. Where is Godwin Kienka?
We have many papers from seminars and different workshops on Nigerian sports. But we never implement the ideas people come up with. Thatâ€™s our problem. I can stand up and tell the minister in 20 minutes what to do to revive tennis, boxing, track and field etc. Many others who have been around in sports and who have been following the modern trends can also do same. I strongly believe that they also know a lotÂ in the sports ministry. But how will they implement these ideas?
What basic things should be done and how do we get started? These are topics for another day but I can bet that they know these things although there are challenges. I hope that President Yarâ€™Adua fulfills his promise of announcing sports development plan as he promised the delegation of Jacques Rogge, IOC President who visited him on Tuesday.
Pele was in the delegation, he probably was excited and reeled out promises.Â When the plans are out and implemented, tennis may be one of the sports to benefit and Segun may not suffer heart attack any time Nigerian players are on court.