By John Egbokhan
He has a portrait of himself and current world number one, Novak Djokovic hanging somewhere in his living room.
The smile on the face of the current Australian Open champion was unmistakable. But the picture is not a recent one. The man who appears in the image alongside the Slovak champion is unarguably one of the most enduring personalities of Nigerian tennis.
Welcome to the world of Godwin Kienka, a former player, a journalist, tennis umpire, coach and now promoter and developer of the game of tennis in Nigeria.
In his formative years as a player, Kienka was once rated as the most improved tennis player in the country. That was in the days of Nduka Odizor, David Imonite, Tony Mmoh, Sadiq Abdullahi, Johyn Atiomo, Romanus Nwazu, Remi Osho etc. The period referred to was the golden era of Nigerian tennis.
The period that Nigeria hosted $75, 000 tournaments at the Lagos Lawn Tennis Club. Yes, that was in the days that Nigeria was the hub of tennis in Africa, when the country had up to 14 players ranking reasonably well in the world. Of course, the same period that Odizor got as far as the fourth round of the Wimbledon Open. It was around the same time that Kienka was once rated the most improved tennis player of the year. There were many local tournaments that kept the purses of the players so healthy that they lived well on them. The ATP Challenger series were huge boosters.
The same Kienka later became a tennis umpire, officiating at the Grand Slam level, later a journalist, covering Grand Slams events, before joining the coaching line, churning out great tennis players like Clara Udofia and later as a promoter of the game, organizing tournaments under the International Tennis Academy banner, which is still blazing strong many years on.
It will surprise you to know that he started out as a footballer and would have gone on to become a top professional player but for a series of events that made him divert to tennis.
Djokovic is the biggest sensation in tennis right now. But he first met him when he was yet to hit the limelight.
Recalling his meeting with Djokovic, Kienka told Saturday Vanguard Sports that he knew intuitively that the Slovak was bound for the top sooner than later.
“If you are passionate for the game and keep up to the date with the trend, it would not be difficult for you to spot a talent from a distance. When I saw him, I just knew then that he was going to be the biggest player soon. When I went to cover tennis tournaments abroad, I didn’t just go to watch the matches and attend press conferences.
“For me, the attraction when covering such assignments was the practice courts to see what the players were doing before their matches. Seeing the players on the court gives me an idea of how they will play and helps me to understand the processes that they undergo before the main thing”, Kienka added.
It is this same sixth sense that made him to first discover Clara Udofia, a player who would have gone on to become the biggest female tennis player to come out of Africa if the plan he had then was not disrupted by some overbearing officials of the Nigeria Tennis Federations.
Recalling how he first got to know Udofia, Kienka said that “I think she was around 12 years old, when she came to Lagos for a junior tournament and lost in the second round. I sat and saw her hit two good shots before her defeat. I was very impressed with the performance of this girl, who came from Calabar, without a coach and was still able to hit those shots and I thought of the many good shots that she could hit with proper training and guidance.
“I immediately spoke to her after the game and later contacted the parents to allow her stay back at the International Tennis Academy for some coaching and the father, who was then a lecturer at the Polytechnic in Calabar, came down to see our place and was impressed and allowed her to stay.
“In less than three weeks, Clara Udofia was hitting unbelievable shots and after the training ended, I had to beg the father to please allow her remain with us, with a pledge to make her a champion, which I was able to do as she became a national champion in 1992, beating other senior players of note then”, Kienka recalled.
But when queried on what became of the Udofia’s dream, Kienka, pausing to catch his breathe again, said that “we had a great plan for Udofia because if she broke through as Odizor did, we would use her success to fast-track the growth of other tennis players in the country.
“We were well on course to achieving it as many top Nigerians like Alhaji Yusuf Ali of the then Unipetrol was deeply involved in the project. It was not only tennis that we were using to drive the project but also academics. |She made four As in her WAEC, so we were making progress on all fronts. She worked hard and during his visit to the academy, Alhaji Ali saw her in training and was impressed.
“Even though he was the Chairman of the Nigeria Football Association, Alhaji Ali was a true tennis fan and supporter of the game. He was ready to take her to the international circuits and there were other companies who were also aligned to the success of Udofia”, added Kienka.
Without an international ranking point, it was not going to be easy to get Udofia up and running as she needed to qualify to play in the main draw of the circuit tourneys at least three times to get a ranking point.
With the odds stacked against them, Kienka, an ITF certified coach, got Udofia to break into the world top 600 in the first year of her attempts in international tennis.
“We moved her from ground zero to top 600 in the first year and were quite surprised and impressed with her development. In the second year, the target was to get her to into the top 50 because at the rate she was going, she was becoming phenomenal. “I remember that we went to Zimbabwe for a tournament, where she got to the semifinal and was on the back page of the Nation newspaper, with the editor then writing that she was going to be the next amazon of women tennis.
“But just as we made plans to consolidate on her efforts, we encountered a lot of interferences from the Nigeria Tennis Federation who told her parents that they had a better plan for their daughter and that they should withdraw her from our academy. The father pulled her out and they also told Alhaji Ali to start dealing with the NTF. But instead of dealing with them, he pulled out when it became clear that they had taken the poor girl away from our academy.
“But three months after they took her away from us, the poor girl went back to ground zero”, Kienka said somberly.
He continued thus: ‘we have learnt our lessons from it, not to give up when people are trying to push one aside. It’s not how much noise you make but the substance that matters. Her father has also learnt his lessons.
“She was rated higher than Kieran Black then because of her potentials and brave heart. Now if Black, who also featured in that tournament in Zimbabwe, came through as a the number one in doubles and got into the top 30 and made at least $25m in winnings, then imagine if Udofia had continued on the path we charted and perhaps made half of what Black made, then she would have changed her family’s history and changed Nigerian tennis for the better”, added Kienka.
After catching another deep breathe, this time longer than before, Kienka, responding to a question on how come he was multi-talented, said it all boiled down to growing up in the missions.
“Then, it was normal to have sports facilities at our beck and call. I actually started out as footballer and perhaps would have ended up playing top-flight professional football with Sharks of Port Harcourt but for academics, which took me to the University of Ibadan, where I had to change to tennis after experiencing how the boots of the players were collected from everybody after a match at the University of Ife.
“I felt that it was unprofessional to take the boots of players because I came from a sports background, where we always had our tools at our disposal. I dumped them when we got back to Ibadan and approached the tennis team to allow me join them but they said there was no vacancy.
“When I begged them, they threw me a challenge to beat the the number four seed to get into the team and when the day of the challenge came, I outclassed the said player, who later became my best friend then”, added Kienka
A lot has been said of the terrible state of Nigerian tennis and solutions have been proffered to halt the slide into the abyss. Unlike others, who rate the past better the present, Saturday Vanguard Sports got a rather strange train of thought to the issue from Kienka
“You will be so surprised to know that I am of the view that our tennis is much better now than it was when we were playing. You may say that we had more senior tournaments then at the senior level but was not at the foundational level, which is the most important stage of tennis development.
“What we had when the likes of Nduka Odizor, David Imonite, Tony Mmoh and myself were playing was not developmental. If you are talking about now, the kind of foundation the junior players now have is much stronger and surer than what we had then.
“It is better for tennis to have a strong foundation than to have senior tournaments, which at the end, die off when those senior players are too tired to play on”, added Kienka, with a tone of authority.
But when reminded that all the strides being made at the junior level are akin to blowing hot air into a balloon given the dearth of national and international tournaments and individual sponsorship in Nigeria, Kienka concurred but added a few twists to the issue.
“That is correct, very correct. I was very worried with the trend that there was no fundamental developmental plan to take the established junior players to the senior level. But we are set for a major breakthrough with the NCC, who will be funding the 30 weeks of tennis for our players. .
“We know that without something like this upcoming tournaments, that there will be a big problem if these players stagnated at the junior level. Most of the junior players like Moses Michael and Christian Paul were already winning senior tournaments, which was a good development for Nigeria and made us realise that the next step was to create the platform for them to be actively involved all-year-long”. On how he became a coach and an umpire, Kienka said that “the coaching thing started out of helping others to play better. I was always willing to help others become better players and during a time, the ITF team came to Ibadan and I was told to participate in the coaching training and after, we wrote examinations and surprisingly, I came top.
“But the umpire thing came because I was always keen to have a bird’s eye view of a match and the seat of the umpire was the only place where one could see everything. That sparked my interest and I went for the course and passed and later became a bronze-badge official”, added Kienka.
For those who have come across him like the former Group Sports Editor of Vanguard Newspapers, Onochie Anibeze, who now edits the Saturday Vanguard, Kienka remains the most consistent tennis promoter in Nigeria.
“I am yet to see a Nigerian, who is committed to sports development, especially tennis like Kienka, who played the game, coached it, was a journalist who reported it at Grand Slam level, umpired it to the Grand Slam height, and is now promoting and developing it by organising tournaments. I met him into tennis as a young reporter and now that I am over 20 years in the profession, he is still there exhibiting the same vigour that I saw in him then while others who started with him have all stepped aside.
“He must be a special person, so gifted to have that sort of endurance. In a normal country, Kienka will be the biggest sports consultant in the Sports Ministry, if he is not running the show”’, added Anibeze.
So what keeps Kienka going?
Responding, the tennis veteran said “it’s a life-long thing. The best work to do is your hobby. I am enjoying the experience of helping others to become better players and watching how players are molded into champions”.
Kienka runs sports programmes in Lagos, Abuja and Rivers. He oversees and maintains sports facilities in sports centres including hotels aside coaching the game.
“I’ve been home for a few weeks and I’m surprised that Kienka organises tournaments more than the national tennis federation,” Ganiyu Adelekan, a one time national star said while on holiday from US last December.