By John Egbokhan
The looming frame of Godwin Kienka, who runs the International Tennis Academy, one of the foremost Junior academies in the country, caught his attention from afar.
Shaking his head in no particular direction, he spluttered the words “Tamuno o., Tamuno e”, to which Kienka, almost bending to salute, responded :’the great tennis professor, our tennis encyclopedia”
As he moved closer to formally greet him, Kienka, pointing at his traditional walking stick, joked that, “you have not washed(celebrated) this one sir”, to which the man who was still hailing Kienka, said that “we cannot wash anything now that we are mourning the death of our one of our tennis promoters”.
Continuing, he told Kienka, that “you have given a lot to tennis but you need to go back to Bayelsa(it should be Rivers) and fight for power but it is not easy there because those guys have a way of frustrating well-meaning people out of the state”
This was the scene that played out on Thursday, when Chief Ben Ezeibe visited the Lagos Lawn Tennis Club, the home of tennis in Nigeria, which has been in a state of mourning, since a former patron of the Nigeria Tennis Federation and President of the LLTC, Chief Molade Okoya-Thomas died on February 2.
His death has brought to the fore, once again, how much the game of tennis in Nigeria has changed in the last three decades.
The late Okoya-Thomas, a committed tennis enthusiast and promoter, was a year short of joining the Octogenarian club, leaving behind a lot of fond and sad memories to be shared by those who came across him during the great days of yore, when Nigeria was the indisputable tennis hub in Africa.
Memories are evergreen amongst the pioneers of tennis administration in Nigeria but they are still recovering from the shock of losing one of their own, Okoya-Thomas to the cold hands of death.
To all of them, the deceased, who was distinguished gentleman and developer of talents, gave his life and time to the development of the professional game in the country. Friends of tennis have been trooping to the Lagos Lawn Tennis Club (LLTC) to pay their tributes to the departed Lagos socialite, who a condolence register has been opened by the management of the club.
Chief Ben Ezeibe, a respected former official of the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) Tour, on Thursday visited the LLTC to pay his respects to the late Okoya-Thomas, who he described as one of the foundation builders of Nigerian tennis..
Speaking to Saturday Vanguard Sports, on his way to the Lagos Lawn Tennis Club, Ezeibe said that Okoya-Thomas did a lot for tennis but regretted how the meteoric progress of the ’70s and ’80s was frittered away in the last two decades by the players and administrators.
“The late Okoya-Thomas, was a good friend of mine, who contributed to the growth of tennis in the country. He was the President of the Lagos Lawn Tennis |Club in the ’80s and I recall that at that time, our players were doing very well on the ATP Tour.
“Lagos Lawn Tennis Club was the mecca of tennis in Africa because of the high quality of tournaments being played there. The biggest was the Lord Rumens Lagos Classics, which drew the best in the world to Nigeria”, Chief Ezeibe added, to drive home the point of how big tennis was in the country.
Once inside the club, fond memories began flooding in back for Ezeibe, who was still in shock that tennis has lost one of it’s great administrators, under whose belt, Nigerian players dwarfed their football peers in terms of income earned from sports.
As he made his way into the club, greeting his friends and admirers in turns, Chief Ezeibe, a former member of the Nigeria Tennis Federation, said that the boom witnessed in the days of yore was down to the ingenuity of about five persons.
“Alhaji Raheem Adejumo, the Nigeria Lawn Tennis Association Chairman, Okoya-Thomas, myself, Chief Alabi Lord Rumens, Aliaji Otiti of the Central Bank of Nigeria in the ’80s, were the ones who mapped out the road map to success that our tennis witnessed in those days.
“I can recall that we used to sit down together in those days to take decisions on how the game would grow and our plans worked wonders because the players keyed into them and the made a great living out of the game.
“ Tennis was a big professional sport in those days and our players were living well on earnings from tournaments, winning thousand of dollars every time. These were times tennis players earned more than many of their soccer counterparts in Nigeria”, Chief Ezeibe recalled with nostalgia.
Returning to how big the game was in his days, Chief Ezeibe said that Nigeria was the hub of tennis in Africa, as leading Europeans came to play ATP tournaments in the country, with some begging organisers to give them wild cards to play in the main draw in exchange for money.
Aside the Lord Rumens Classics, there were the Kaduna Clay Courts, The Ogun Green Courts, The Ogbe Hard Court, The Nuel Ojei event, the Premier Hard Court in Enugu which Ezeibe himself facilitated and other ATP ratified events. There were also many local champiosnhips that had reasonable prize monies such that Nigerian players were busy playing tournaments and earning money.
“Nigerian tennis had everything going on well for it in our days. Everything was working well. Our players earned big money, lived well and were famous at home and abroad. They were not even going overseas because we had tournaments all year round to sustain themselves,” Ezeibe added.
“Lord Rumens was the sponsor of the Lagos Classics, an ATP tournament and the biggest in the continent although South Africa was under apartheid ban and was not in the picture.
“I recall that in the 1976 edition of the Lord Rumens Classics, military personnel invaded everywhere. It was a 75,000 dollar tournament and that was huge money at the time and you remember that Thomas Musther who once became world number one played at Lord Rumens in Lagos. There was a military coup and the Lord Rumens Classics were affected. Initially, we didn’t know what the commotion was all about. We were all surprised and shocked but later found out that they just executed a coup and since the State House then was close to the Lagos Lawn Tennis Club, they quickly took over the place, oblivious of the calibre of players on court then.
“We also had the Ogbe Hard Court, which was a $50, 000 tournament and the most consistent of all. Then we had the Kaduna Clay, a $25, 000 event with hospitality, which made it a $50, 000.
“We also had the Ogun Green Courts $25, 000 event, the Premier Hard Court $25, 000 tournament and the John Players Classics at the Lagos Country Club, which was another $25, 000 tournament. The list of tournaments in the country was not limited to the ones I have mentioned but the point I am making is that in those days, our players were the stars of Nigerian sports”, added Ezeibe, who runs a thriving business empire in the country.
His business acumen has been his greatest asset, managing some of the best tennis players that this country has ever produced. Tony Mmoh, second only to the ‘great’ Nduka Odizor, was his product. He personally planned his tennis programme, unlike now where players are left to their fate.
He recalled how Mmoh, Odizor battled the best players in the world, with the latter reaching the fourth round of the Wimbledon Open in the ’80s, a feat, no other Nigerian has been able to reach till date.
“No sports was bigger than tennis in those days. The records are there. Football has always been popular but in terms of prizes our tennis players earned more. Our players were earning big money weekly. Even footballers like Segun Odegbami, Emmanuel Okala, Christian Chukwu were nowhere near our tennis players in terms on money earned in those days,” Chief Ezeibe said with glee, adding “tennis was great and also it commanded great media attention. Chris Okojie, Chris Ogwu, Ikeddy Isiguzo, Ayo Ositelu wrote tennis beautifully and were later joined by your current boss, Onochie Anibeze whose passion for tennis knew no bounds. And there were the likes of Banji Ola and Ahmed Shuibu. Tennis competed for media attention with football. It was that good.”
But his countenance soon turned sour as he regretted how the game has gone downhill.
And like a true professional, with an answer for every problem, Ezeibe heaped the blame for the slump of tennis in Nigeria on many factors notably the management of the game, the lack of hunger in the players, who he claimed have shown no burning desire to take their destiny in their hands and systemic failure in the polity.
“Like I said earlier, some players from Europe would do everything to be given a wild card for they knew the importance of ATP ranking points. But our players did not know and and they took things for granted. Even when things were rosy and they were making money, they lost sight of the future.
“I sent about 15 players to USA to play tennis and school but none of them is today playing tennis. They have all turned to other means to make a living, while their peers developed to earn big money from the sport. Now you have the likes of Andy Murray, Rafael Nadal and Djokovic making millions of dollars every week. In those days, we had some Nigerians in the top 150 of the world. Now, none is in the top 1000.
“Apart from golf, tennis is the only sport that the players control their destiny. That is why being a tennis player is a very profitable venture but our players are yet to realise this”, added Chief Ezeibe.