...Adejumo’s last wish for Nigeria’s tennis

Professor Sadiq Abdullahi, a former Nigeria international tennis star, now based in the USA was in Nigeria, early in the month to attend the Annual General Meeting (AGM) and Awards Night of the Nigerian Olympians Association. Part of his itinerary was to meet stakeholders in the Nigeria tennis confraternity. He travelled round the country, including Lagos for that purpose.

Professor Sadiq Abdullahi also visited our Weekend Editor, Onochie Anibeze at his Greenfield Estate residence and they chatted over the breakfast table. Deputy Sports Editor, Jacob Ajom was also in attendance.

Professor Abdullahi spoke on his early life in America, his retirement and his days with American tennis legend, Arthur Ashe, and a wide range of issues, including efforts by past tennis heroes to better the fortunes of the sport in Nigeria. Excerpts.

Onochie: You guys were very good then and tennis was good.

“We could not come together as a unit. But individually, some are doing very well. But a lot came out during the 80s and 90s”.

Onochie interjects: I think we lost it way back at that time, because when you guys were leaving, there were no worthy successors.

“Absolutely,” echoes Sadiq, “There were no replacements because if you look at the history, from the 1970s, the colonial structures that were left, the Yemisi Allens, Thompson Onibokuns. Awokpekpas, Patrick Obi, Obianwu among others that played during that set from the 60s, they played good tennis. We were the ball boys that time. We were watching them and picking balls for them.

Then the next set came, the Kehinde Ajayis. There was continuity. As soon as they left, the Imonite set moved in, then Nduka Odizor, Tony Mmoh, then I had my own set. Out of my own set players like Godwin Emeh. Yakubu Suleiman set came after us. Yakubu Suleiman was under me.

Remember, I beat him to win the President’s Cup at the Lagos Lawn Tennis Club. Then Yakubu Suleiman was hot. He beat a Togolese in the semi-finals and then came to meet me in the final, thinking he was going to blow me up. But I used experience against him. He was young and I was on my way out and he was taking over. He was hot after attending the 1994 Olympics and thought he could use serve and volley against me.

I concentrated on my returns. I was using my head.

“So if you look at the progression, tennis was very busy because the tournaments were there. I can remember that as soon as I finished one tournament, I was heading to Enugu Open and Onitsha Open in one week. One was engaged in tournaments back-to-back. We were very busy then, and there was no time to think.

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Then we go to the north. Kaduna Clay Court, Dana Hard Court and other little tournaments and exhibition matches here and there. If there were no tournaments, exhibition games were organised where they would pay us some allowances, accommodation and the rest. Things were really good then. So tennis was in the 70s, early 80s and mid-80s. I retired after the Olympics. I attended the US Open in 1988. After the US Open in September, I just said I was done. After that, a lot of us went into coaching.

“For me, for four years I was working with Arthur Ashe at the Doral Resort and Country Club. He contracted HIV from a blood transfusion he received during heart bypass surgery in 1983. He died in 1993 and after his death, I then realised I had to transit to education fully. In 1994 was when I started my journey back to school. It took me ten years to get my Masters and Doctorate Degrees. By 2004, I was done with education and I began to reconnect. I then worked for five years to gain some experience.

“In 2008, the whole Nigerian tennis community met in Huston to reconceptualise. Alhaji Adejumo was dying, he called Rolake Olagbegi and told her that, “look, you guys must get it together. You must get it together,” as he was on his dying bed. That meant, we must not allow tennis to die in Nigeria.

That was the message he sent to all of us through Rolake. Immediately after that meeting, we set up the Nigeria Tennis Foundation. Then, for us to start coming together, all the plan, the paperwork were written by me but nobody followed up. So a year or two years after paying for the foundation, then people were telling me, it was not possible to carry everybody along, that I needed to do it by myself.

In 2009 I came to Nigeria and met with Sani Ndanusa, then Minister of Sports and President of the Tennis Federation. What he told me shocked me. He said, ‘I thought you have lost relevance. You want to be relevant again” I will never forget that conversation.

Most of you, ex-tennis internationals have been accused of using tennis to go abroad and you have since abandoned the domestic sport to die.

No. No, we didn’t abandon it. There have been deliberate attempts in the past to come and help individually. A lot of tennis players had tried to help in the past but they got frustrated. The system did not allow them. Nduka Odizor, for instance, got frustrated. He had a genuine plan to help Nigeria tennis, although his approach was wrong. The way he wanted to go about his own contribution to tennis development was purely Nduka’s way, and that was problematic for the system. Nduka did not follow the path that we took. His was Nduka and at that time, everything was Nduka Odizor. The system, the money, everything. Whatever Nduka wanted, he got it but he did not take us along. The reason he gave was that he had to be professional, he was focused and he was a business guy. So because of that, we could not latch onto Nduka’s plan. He did not provide the leadership that was needed when he was on his way out. And that was the difference between him and former tennis players around the world that were into tennis federations.

As for Imonite, before he got frustrated and left the country, he did a lot. He started junior tournaments, intermediate tournaments like Chevron and all of that. He too got frustrated with the system and the structure. Then he said, you know what, I have had enough. He packed his things and left.

Tony Mmoh did not follow our own path. When he finished his tennis, he realised that the system was not going to accommodate him, he went to Saudi Arabia and cut off completely from Nigeria tennis.

For me, I always stayed and, like Rolake in my set, stayed and wanted to come back and we have done a lot of work. Then below me, Ajibade, Yakubu Suleiman, Moses all of these people were ready to do one thing or the other. No, we did not use Nigeria tennis and abandoned it.

Onochie: The system in Nigeria was largely against the concept they were coming with from the US.

Abdullahi: I wanted a change. I can show you a story done by Arena(late Ayo Ositelu) some 30 years ago. The title of the story was The Verdict of Sadiq Abdullahi. I was trying to challenge Adejuma to change the system. I was very critical. These are some of the things I have done personally. And it shows that there have been some deliberate attempts, individually and collectively to help the game in Nigeria. Without tennis I wouldn’t be where I am and I felt obligated never to give up.

When you guys were playing, players lived on tennis because there were so many tournaments. The local circuit was very busy.

Yes. Then one could even travel to other African nations, like the Kenya Open.

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Rolake once asked me why we are lacking sponsors now that there are more companies than the time you were playing?

I told her that the administrators were not transparent and that didn’t help sponsorship. It must be noted that sponsorship is different from donation. If you are sponsoring an event, you have the right to know how that money is being spent. I gave an example of one company that sponsored Team Nigeria to the Olympics sometime ago, and the money was squandered. I wrote that time that I could not see how the company would ever sponsor Team Nigeria any longer. Ever since, nothing has happened again in that direction. That is because they spent money for mileage, instead it brought them mockery.

The sports administrators we had in the 70s and the 80s spent their money on sports but the ones who came after, are stealing from sports. That could be partly one of the challenges that made some of you not to come home.

Abdullahi: In part, yes, because if you look at Adejumo and the subsequent leadership in the Tennis Federation, they didn’t have the clout Adejuma had. And Adejumo had stability. He was a businessman and his business was good. The only problem I had with him at that time was that Adejumo was not futuristic.

There is something I would like you to comment on. Chief Ben Ezeibe said that after your set, players are no longer as hungry as you people were.

I agree, but not limited to Tennis, all the other sports, including football. When you talk about the Odegbami set, it is definitely different from what obtains now. The passion and the drive was to represent the country and when you compete, then there were rewards. But now, people are putting money ahead before the competition. In a way I agree with Ben.

Another thing which I think is missing today is what you (Onochie) have written severally on, going back to the grassroots through the school system.

I am picking up on that, to set up a new structure for tennis development called Tennis Nigeria Foundation 2035. It is based on what you and others have written about. We need to rebuild and it is going to be all-inclusive. That is why I have embarked on this consultative tour, meeting with stakeholders here and there. I have met with Nigerian Players Association, the Umpires, asking questions on what we could do to revive the game. When you have the players, coaches and the umpires then you have the critical stake holders.

When the current administration came to power, I wrote the President and pointed out the aspect of tennis development. I canvassed we should develop a relationship, that was four years ago. I followed that up with documents, he did not respond.

The major problem has been implementation.

I agree with you./Our inability to put the appropriate structures in place at that time, has affected successive administrations. None of them has been able to put a structure in place. That is why implementation has become a problem. So we are stuck at conceptualisation and design. Implementation is the problem.

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