By Onochie Anibeze
Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and the William sisters coming to Nigeria to play?
I heard officials of the Local Organising Committee and those of the Lagos Lawn Tennis Club say that on channels Television during the unveiling of the logo for the Lagos Open Tennis Championships.
The Governor’s Cup, an ITF sanctioned Future’s tournament, according to them, will now be upgraded to a Challenger Series event. And that, according to them will attract the likes of Nadal, Djokovic, Murray and the Williams sisters to Nigeria.
I never expected any person who knows about the game of tennis to say that; and doing so on television was unbelievable.
“We brought the Williams Sisters here for a demonstration event but now they can come here to compete,” one of them said. UNBELIEVABLE. Nadal To play in a Challenger Series event? If any player in the top 200 plays in the Lagos Open it will be celebrated! And note that it is not yet a Challenger event. They have probably applied and waiting approval which will be based on the prize money, their ability to organise such event and the possible hospitality to be offered. Hospitality is not a must but an advantage.
What will any top player in the world be doing in a challenger series tournament not only in Nigeria but in any part of the world? They play in the Grand Slams, Masters and top Grand Prix tournaments. There are many Grand Prix events in the ATP calendar. Tournaments are graded. The Lagos Open officials did not disclose the prize money of the event but whatever they may offer may not be up to what a first-round loser in a Grand Slam or a top grand prix earns. And that’s what the Nigerian officials were boasting would attract top world class players here. Was it a case of ignorance or deliberate falsehood to promote the Lagos Open? I thought that they should have known better.
However, I strongly commend them for the effort to start a Challenger tournament in Nigeria again. We once had them. Those were the good days of Nigerian tennis. We had Lord Rumens Classics in Lagos, The Ogbe Hard Court in Benin, The Ogun Green Court, The Kaduna Clay Court. Later John Player Tournament held at the Country Club, Ikeja and Chief Ben Ezeibe conceived The Premier Hard Court in Enugu.
All these were Challenger Series tournaments and many players were propelled by ATP points earned from the Nigerian tennis circuit.
Thomas Muster who eventually became world number one once played here. Nigeria was one of his springboards. But the moment he became top class the only thing that would have made him return to Nigeria for competitive tennis would have been a higher tournament, a Grand Prix or a Masters where the prize money would be in hundreds of thousands of dollars. For the information of the officials I heard on television it would not make sense for any top world player to play in smaller tournaments like challenger series.
First, it may not raise his ranking because of the status of such a tournament.
Two, he would rather lose points and crash in ranking if a junior player upsets him in such a tournament. World football governing body, FIFA, picked a few things from the tennis ranking system when they introduced ranking of countries. I hope our people are well guided as they prepare to revive Challenger Series tournaments in Nigeria.
Chuka Momah knows and he made sense when he said that Nigerian kids may pick interest in tennis and champions can be developed from the Lagos Open, but not that the event will attract the likes of Nadal. However, kudos to all those behind the Lagos Open! It would be pleasant to, once again, watch great tennis on our shores. Definitely, it will generate interest among our youth. And as we prepare to host the players from all over the world efforts should be made to organise local competitions too.
We need sponsors. Those in authority, running sports in Nigeria, have failed us badly. The government has equally failed us by not laying a good foundation. They are even destroying what they met on the ground. Organising tournaments here will keep our players busy and good tennis programmes can elevate them to be among those earning millions of dollars from the game. So much tennis money is eluding us because we failed to plan to sustain and even improve in the game we once shone and had great potential to be among the most respected in the world.
For a country that was once top in the continent not to be among the top 20 currently is a big shame. But the plunge has been general. It’s been so in track and field, boxing and even football. Why are we falling in all aspects?
That’s why I commend the initiators of Lagos Open. Others should emulate them. Our All Nigeria Open was so rich that our players in the USA returned home to play in the tournament. Tennis was so big that players lived well on the game. There were tournaments almost every month. I’ll never stop celebrating or reminiscing the good days of Nigerian tennis when Nduka Odizor won a Grand Prix at Chinese Taipei.
He also reached the round of 16 in Wimbledon and rose to 64 in the world. Tony Mmoh was 105. I’ll never forget the classic games we saw from the likes of Sadiq Abdullahi, David Imonitie, Yakubu Suleiman, Remi Osho, Friday Otabor, Innocent Modika, Romanus Nwazu, John Atiomo, Segun and Rotimi Akinloye, Kyrian Nwokedi, Nnamdi Ehirim, Paul Areh, etc. I saw Sule Ladipo play junior tournaments and I saw him struggle on the circuit.
I saw elegant Rolake Olagbegi, Veronica Oyibokia, Nosa Imafidon, Mary Amina, Titi Onatshile, Emily Okereke, Aisha Adamu, etc. play. Even in officiating. Our Wale Olagbegi was so good he officiated in Wimbledon. What didn’t happen here? I saw many foreigners want to die on our tennis courts to earn ATP points. I saw Mexican George Lozano win Lord Rumens as a lucky loser. I saw Ocleppo Giani, Meno Oosting and many foreign players dazzle on our courts. Lagos Lawn Tennis Club had class and could host big events.
It did with All Nigeria Open and Lord Rumens. The Davis Cup matches then were classic. Nigeria, this same country called Nigeria, was once one match away from the World Group (the best 16 tennis countries in Davis Cup ranking) when the Netherlands denied us the spot. It could have been different if our number one player, Nduka Odizor played that match.
He failed to turn up. Nigerians were disappointed. It fell on Sadiq Abdullahi and Imonitie to lift us into the World Group. They did their best but Oosting was playing his best tennis. It was a sad knowing that Odizor could have made the difference but he was not there for us. But we could be ranked a tennis nation then going by the number of our players on the circuit and those earning richly from the organised tennis at home. How I wish those days could be reborn. JUST A DREAM.