By Onochie Anibeze
How times change. Rolake Olagbegi, the once elegant tennis queen of Nigeria from the famous Olagbegi family is now married to Moyo Kassim and boasts of all the features that make her a mother of three.
But she has not left tennis. She runs a tennis clinic in her base in Atlanta, USA, and was home last December.
DeltaState engaged her to train their tennis team to the sports festival. They dominated in the sport. Rolake drilled the players and they felt the difference. Out of five gold medals in tennis Delta won three, a silver and two bronze medals.
It was even the first time Delta was winning a gold in tennis. And they did it in such a style that Governor Emmanuel Uduaghan commended her during the reception the state held for their contingent which also won the festival in style.
I vividly remember the comments Rolake made at the Lagos Lawn Tennis Club, the venue of the tennis event.
“There are companies now than in those days our tennis thrived. We even have richer and bigger companies now than then. How come there are no more sponsors of the game? How come we had more tournaments then than now? What’s going on? I have seen some talents here but they say they have only one or two tournaments in Nigeria now and that they don’t get to play. Tell me, what’s going on?
I said that I wished Sani Ndanusa were around to answer Rolake. I’m sure Ndanusa was not on the scene when Rolake was playing. I never heard of him then. I wouldn’t know if he also knew about the standard of tennis in the country then.
If he knew and followed the sport from his Minna base then I’m sure he would be having sleepless nights about the messy state of Nigerian tennis. But for Ndanusa everything appears fine. That’s why I doubt if he followed the game in the 70s, 80s and even in the 90s.
He is comfortable as President of the Tennis Federation, a sport that once projected Nigeria tremendously and provided such financial succour that many players lived on it and provided for their families with earnings from tournaments but has lost everything that made it flamboyant in Nigeria.
They were ATP Challenger events and Nigeria was one of the destination points for many players especially those hungry for points and rankings which could earn them entry into Grand Prix events and possibly the Grand Slams aside the prize monies. And a number of them did.
Thomas Muster once played here and at a time was world number one. It was a fancy to see the likes of Sadiq Abdullahi, David Imonitie returning after playing the qualifying rounds of Wimbledon to display some souvenirs from such events. Tony Mmoh and Odizor were high enough to play in the main draws and Odizor once got to the round of 16 after which he ranked 64 in the World.
Then, we had players. Remi Osho, David Imonitie, Godwin Emeh, Innocent Modika, Yakubu Suleiman, Friday Itabor, Solomon Ona, Robinson Odoko, Godwin kienka etc. Later, the likes of Nnamdi Ehirim, Kyrian Nwokedi, Segun and Rotimi Akinloye, Paul Areh, Abdularaman Idi, Adjongo, Gabriel Otu etc.
They made tennis vibrant here and the sport competed with football. Newspapers led with tennis stories. We went to the airport to cover the arrival of tennis players.
Before this era was that of Yemisi Alan, Thompson Onibokun, Lawrence Awegbegba, Ojugbeli.
The girls were also top on the game. Esther Isabor, Ngozi Morah, Cecelia Nnadozie, Rolake Olagbegi, Ann Abimiku, Vero Oyibokia, Nosa Imafidon, Mary Amina, Aisha Adamu, Osas Amadin, Titi Onatshile etc. We had a national coach in Mrs Elizabeth Ekong who made sure the players were always busy on courts tournaments or no tournaments.
And we had so many of the local tournaments too. All Nigeria Open sponsored by Nigeria Breweries was so big that players came from abroad to play it. CBN was in the calendar and the only one still on.
Kudos to them. National Printing and Minting Company had one. Green Sands Shandy had one for girls that even attracted the famous Berth sisters from Senegal. NNPC had a tournament. Coca Cola co sponsored the President’s Cup, the only cup final that President Ibrahim Babangida attended in his tenure as President. After watching the thrills in the final he said that he would start playing tennis.
There were tournaments in various cities. There was even Onitsha Open made interesting by a tennis buff called Chief Ben Ezeibe, the man that tried to encourage Ndanusa when he came on board but ended being disappointed.
I’m not sure Ndanusa knew when Ezeibe was spending thousands of dollars sponsoring Tony Mmoh’s ATP tours and the likes of Modika and later the Nwokedis. He shouldn’t fall out with such people. He needs them. He needs the corporate world. He probably lacks the marketing prowess to market tennis and make it vibrant. But he could engage people to do that for the sport. Sponsors have long withdrawn from the game and Ndanusa should be worried.
He appears not. He is also the President of Nigeria Olympic Committee and was a sports minister not too long ago in this country. I guess he has enough contacts to help the sport but probably lacks the will and tact.
Tennis thrived under Raheem Adejumo and the plunge started after he left. I even criticised Chuka Momah for not being an Adejumo but I now know better. Ndanusa is my friend but I must tell him the truth. Tennis is not only dead but being buried in his tenure as President of the federation and I know that he can do better.
My experience at the National Stadium, Lagos last Friday, influenced this piece.
I went to the tennis courts to see who was playing and to know what their standard was like. I saw more men playing social tennis than the young ones preparing for tournaments. There are no tournaments. Safe for CBN, Governor’s Cup which is an ITF Futures event and one or two junior programmes packaged by Godwin Kienka there is virtually nothing happening in the country.
At the stadium courts I saw a number of teenage players looking for who to coach and sell rackets and other things to. One approached me. He didn’t know who I was. He said, “sir, do you want to play tennis? I can teach you. You don’t need to pay so much. Tennis is a good sport. You will love it. You can buy this racket and start tomorrow. I will teach and you will like it.”
I asked him his age and he said 17. I felt bad. 17 year old who should be playing tournaments under the guidance of a proper coach, looking for who to coach and earn some money for a living? I looked around and two other teenagers joined us, all telling me to come and be taught how to play tennis for a fee. They didn’t know what I was thinking and how terrible I felt for my country.
I told them I had started tennis and without knowing my standard they said I would be a better player if they trained me. They could be right but what struck me was the pitiful sight of teenagers who should be playing tournaments, earning money and planning big for possible careers in tennis begging to coach to earn tokens as a living. It felt so bad that I was almost in tears.
“We would not be doing this if there were tournaments and sponsors,” one of them said.
Certainly, this wasn’t the sport that I was assigned in my teething days in sports journalism. It just couldn’t be. It was hectic covering junior and senior tournaments all over the country. One of my first official commendations from then sports editor, Ikeddy Isiguzo, was for my coverage of tennis in a rural area, the Okada Wonderland.
I tried to capture the atmospherics of tennis in the cosmopolitan Lagos with cars blaring horns as they pass by the Lagos Lawn Tennis Club at Tinubu and the tranquil Okada village where only the singing of birds and and whispering of trees were now being pieced by the sound of tennis balls and players celebrating winners and some cursing over unforced errors.
I was everywhere covering tennis. Now, there’s nothing to cover. And ironically, the sport is richer globally. There’s more money in tennis now but no Nigerian player is partaking in the billions of dollars at stake every year now. Too bad.
I left the stadium a sad man and vowed that Ndanusa must share in my feeling. He can do better. The sports minister, Bolaji Abdullahi wants all sports to grow. He can also help tennis.