February 16, 2019

Nnamdi Ehirim charts path to tennis revival in Nigeria

Nnamdi Ehirim charts path to tennis revival in Nigeria

Nnamdi Ehirim

By Jacob Ajom

Nigerian tennis has seen its good days. The likes of Rolake Olagbegi, Nduka Odizor, David Imonite, Yakubu Suleiman, Sadiq Abdullahi, among others too numerous to mention took the Tennis world by storm in the 1980s and early 1990s. Odizor in particular played up to 4th round of  1983 Wimbledon, 3rd round of the 1985 and ’87 US Open, 3rd round of 1985 Australian Open, won the 1983 Tapei Masters and won seven doubles titles during a career dotted with many firsts.

Nnamdi Ehirim

When revenge could be therapeutic!

In the mid 1990s, there emerged another generation of Tennis players that held sway and among them was Nnamdi Ehirim. He was one of the shinning lights of Nigerian Tennis until he left for the United States. Ehirim is now an ITF certified coach in the US where he is in charge of tennis training at Centercourt Club and Sports, Morganville NJ, USA.

“I have been coaching here for 17 years now. It is a very big club,” he told this reporter.

Last December, the former whizkid of Nigeria tennis who feels eternally indebted to his fatherland was in Nigeria on vacation. He organised a special training programme/clinic for both junior and senior players at the Enugu Tennis Club, where he grew up as a budding tennis player.

“Before I left {the US} for Nigeria, I called the secretary to get 10 good lads playing tennis, I bought rackets and balls for the junior players. I brought in Christian Paul and Ikechukwu Iloputa who are Nigeria’s top two players at the moment, to join the kids in Enugu. It was a very good experience working with them,” said Ehirim who was formerly ranked top 60 men’s ITF.

“The program was essentially to inspire my homegrown kids about tennis and also to give a little back. The kids have to begin early. Tennis is not like football or cricket or any other sport. The best age to start playing tennis is 3. The game grows up with you. I was very much opportune when I was their age and not like now that things are so ridiculously tough in Nigeria. To buy a racket or tennis balls are such a huge deal now”.

Ehirim agreed that Nigerian tennis has suffered decline. He identified poor funding, lack of sponsorship and dearth of tournaments as some of the key drawbacks in the development of tennis in the country.

“The situation is so bad that our players stay all year round without a tournament. They are not exposed. When I was playing, it was different as we were travelling all over the country playing tournaments almost on a weekly basis. Tennis players then could live off the proceeds from the tournaments one attended,” he said.

But the former Nigeria international believes there can be a way out of the woods for Nigerian tennis. “It must be through collective effort,” he posited. ‘It cannot be achieved through individual effort. All stakeholders must come together to chart the way out. We have to be serious, passionate, committed and tenacious. If every one can in his own little way contribute – like I have been doing for Paul and Ikechukwu, it will go a long way. Apart from bringing them to join the Christmas clinic in Enugu, I invest my money in them and want to see them grow.”

He observed that a lot of companies channel their resources to football, to the detriment of other sports. “Tennis is a beautiful game that you can play at any age. But it is an expensive sport. If we can gather all the big companies in Nigeria and task them to contribute towards tennis revival in the country, they can buy equipment and distribute to states in turns – like every six months one state will be given equipment, in another six months another state gets its own supplies. In most states the kids cannot afford tennis rackets. Through this way, a lot of children can get access to modern tennis equipment.”

He laments the absence of heroes in Nigeria today as against what he experienced while still a budding talent. “When we were growing up, the likes of Kirien Nwokedi, Yakubu Suleiman, David Imonite were all there as our idols. They inspired me and a lot of us. We looked up to them. Today you don’t have such figures in our game.”

On a personal note, Nnamdi Ehirim said he considers his days in the national team as his beggest achievement as a tennis player. “The highest point of my career was in 1994/95 when I played for Nigeria in the Davis Cup. I have played everywhere, including the ATP tournaments but playing for my country was my best achievement in tennis,” Ehirim concluded.