Officials have turned tennis to private property — Abdullahi

Sadiq AbdullahiUS-based Nigerian tennis legend, Sadiq Abdullahi, was part of the country’s golden era of tennis stars in the 1980s. Now a university don, he tells ’TANA AIYEJINA about his time as a player, the game’s collapse in Nigeria and the way forward

What have you been doing since you retired as a tennis player?

I retired from professional tennis in 1988 after the Seoul Olympics Games. From 1989 to 1994, I taught tennis as the Head Tennis Coach at the Doral Resort and Country Club in Miami with the late legendary tennis great, Arthur Ashe, as one of my directors. Between 1994 and 2004, I returned to Graduate School at Florida International University also in Miami for a doctoral degree in Curriculum and Instruction (Education) with specialisation in Social and Global Education. I earned my doctorate degree in 2004.

For the past eight years, I have been an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Teaching and Learning at FIU and recently I became a Visiting Professor at the Federal University Kashere, Gombe State.

As a college professor and scholar, I have written extensively on issues pertaining to education and sports in Nigeria.

How would you describe present day tennis in Nigeria?

Tennis in Nigeria today represents our collective failure as a community of tennis lovers. The media and those interested in the game have written extensively, exposing the problems tennis is facing and continues to face in Nigeria. In 2009, after cutting all ties with the country for 19 years, I returned to inspire a movement to change tennis for the better. We formed an organisation called Nigerian Tennis Foundation in the USA in 2005 to change how we approach tennis development in Nigeria.

Consider our tennis player development history: in the 1970s, the senior national team was made up of Patrick Obi, Lawrence Awopegba, Thompsn Onibokun, Yemi Allen, and Kehinde Ayayi. The intermediate players such as Robinson Odoko, Femi David, Olayiwola Ogunrinde, Segun Balogun, Bullus Hussaini, Nduka Odizor, David Imonitie,  Alex Akah, Godwin Wowo, Solomon Ona, Gabriel Odudu, Remi Osho and Romanus Nwazu were waiting to take over from them. In fact, Imonitie, Balogun, Hussaini, Tony Mmoh, and Odizor took over from the seniors. Among my teammates in the intermediate team in the early 1980s waiting for the senior team included Friday Otabor, late Joseph Ijeh, William Ogene, Phillip Nwajie, Philip Okpopo, Ashimiu Oba, Godwin Emeh and Muri Ajibade. I was the only player who made it to the senior team in 1985.

The national senior team of the mid-1980s was made up of Odizor, Mmoh, Imonitie and I. We were known as the Four Musketeers of Nigerian Tennis. We raised the bar and dominated tennis in Africa and competed favorably in international competitions such as the Davis Cup, ATP tours including all the Grand Slam tournaments, and the Olympics. The Olympics capped my tennis career, a career that was full of ups and downs but nevertheless a productive one.

The 1990s was the era of Sule Ladipo and co. He and his teammates represented Nigeria at the 1996 Olympics, ending our dominance in Africa and representation in the top 100 in world ranking. This should have been a turning point to rebuild the game but nothing was done.

There have been accusations and counter-accusations on who is behind the problem of tennis in Nigeria …

The accusations and counter-accusations are symptoms of deep frustration. They are justifiable and understandable. We are all humans with deep emotions and feelings. I have criticised Chuka Momoh and Sani Ndanusa for not doing enough for the game’s growth. I have also criticised Odizor, Mmoh, Imonitie and myself for not exerting more influence on the administration. Since 2009, I have asked Ndanusa to rethink tennis development and improvement. I stopped criticising him because the approach is not working. The system that relies on one individual, not the group, is bound to break down. If we fix the system, all the sub-systems will be fixed. This is the global concept of interdependence.

Tennis is complex, it is not football or basketball, where young people can play anywhere and with little coaching and equipment. A young tennis player must show interest very early in life. They should begin at the age of five or six.

The first step to correcting this problem is to understand the complexities in growing and promoting the game at the grassroots level. Our administrators and managers have failed in this regard. They failed to be open-minded, collaborative and inclusive. They run the tennis federation as their personal property. They mismanage the International Tennis Federation development money. They fail to invite ex-international players to plan, conceptualise and design a comprehensive tennis development plan.

In your time, Nigeria’s tennis was at its highest. How did your era achieve this?

My generation of players had a collection of talented young players that formed the basis for accomplishments of the 1980s. Nigeria’s tennis peaked in the late 1980s and in the 1990s, it began to deteriorate. Today the game as we know it in the 70s and 80s is dead. In my time, we were highly motivated. We competed vigorously against each other at home and abroad. There were many competitions in Nigeria, Africa, and in the world. As a result, we were all ranked in the top 10 of Africa; ranked in the top 300 on the ATP ranking; Nduka was 60, Mmoh, 110; myself, 262; and Imonitie, 325 between 1985 and 1990. In Nigeria, we were all former national champions and ranked number one respectively in the Nigerian ranking from 1982 to 1989. We proudly represented Nigeria and Africa at the 1988 Summer Olympics and in Davis Cup competitions between 1985 and 1989. These were incredible accomplishments.

We achieved the successes because we knew what was at stake and we had respect for one another. The rivalry between Imonitie and Odizor started at the African Championship in 1978 in Libya. I will never forget that classic match between both of them. Odizor won narrowly. I was a junior player then. You can imagine the impact. The rivalry between Nduka and Mmoh was in the 1980s but Nduka won most of the matches. The rivalry between I and Imonitie was also heroic. It was prolonged and perhaps helped to promote the game locally and continentally. Many young players patterned their styles of play after us. I must admit Imonitie contributed more to developing the game than any player in my generation. But he has not been recognised despite all his efforts.

What was it like playing against the likes of Odizor and Mmoh?

When you play against Odizor, you know you are playing against a fighter. Odizor played to win. Tennis was business to him. His business-like attitude on the tennis court explained his discipline and focus. Mmoh exemplified the same attitude. Both play tennis differently in terms of style of play. Odizor was very aggressive and relies on his power serve and volley game. Mmoh also relied on his power game but will rather push you with top spin, forehand and ruggedness from the baseline. Both were fine players to watch.

I played against both of them at international competitions and competed against them fairly well. I played several matches with Odizor but couldn’t secure a win. I defeated Mmoh at Kenya ATP tournament, where he broke his racket after the loss. My biggest challenge was my lack of determination and aggressiveness. I was the most talented of the four but never played up to expectations. This is my biggest regret.

At the ‘88 Olympics, a lot was expected from you but you crashed out in the first round to Spanish player Javier Sanchez. What happened?

The Sanchez brothers were playing the best tennis in the late 80s. The tempo and expectations at the Olympics were high. The truth is that my style of play favoured Javier and he capitalised on my weak second serve. I played well but he was better prepared. I guess I was not mentally and physically prepared to play against him. Playing against the best from other countries was difficult. But I am glad I represented myself and my country well.

Can you recount your best and worst moments as a tennis player?

The goal of any professional tennis player is to be ranked in the top 100 in the world for at least 10 years. I failed to be ranked in the top 100 after playing pro tennis for five years. This is perhaps my biggest failure. Perhaps my best moments was traveling all over the world playing and experiencing different cultures and interacting with different people. The worst is running out of funds and sleeping in churches and begging for food and accommodation. One of the good moments was seeing Imonitie give up his meals for me in order to be ready for matches. Sacrifices and adjustments were needed and made. Some of the sacrifices we made were caused by the lack of sponsorship and support from the tennis federation. We sponsored ourselves from the beginning to the end. This problem continues to impact on the tennis industry.

Who was the toughest opponent you played against?

Thomas Muster; the former number one player was definitely the toughest player I ever played against. Odizor was another tough player I played. Both of them have different styles but are true professionals. My game had limitations and both of them knew how to play me. They knew how to win. For example, they knew I had two weapons: my serve and my backhand. So they attacked my weakest links: my forehand and my second serve.

What was the highlight of your career?

Playing at the 1988 Olympics, the Davis Cup and the Grand Slam tournaments such as the Wimbledon, U.S. Open and the French Open were definitely the high points of my career. To be there to play the qualifying rounds offered me the opportunity to assess and evaluate my game. The standards were very high.

What are you intending to contribute to the growth of the game in Nigeria?

This is another essential question because it has to do with the future. Since 2009, I have made deliberate attempts to help in tennis development in Nigeria. Some of my ideas have come with resistance from the tennis authority. I have had several conversations with Ndanusa about my role. He has expressed his vision to me and I respect that. Odizor, Mmoh and Imonitie have offered to help the tennis federation in different capacities but were discouraged. When Ndanusa was the minister of sports, he invited me to come and discuss the way forward. He has endorsed the comprehensive tennis development plan that was presented to him in 2011 but he has been reluctant to move the programme forward. We are revising the content and the revised plan will be made available in March 2013 and will be sent to the National Sports Commission for review.   

How can we revive the game in Nigeria?

Tennis, like the nation, is in crisis. I have studied the problems facing tennis in Nigeria for the past four years. My conclusion is that there are two fundamental challenges: political and cultural. A publication on this is forthcoming. The revitalisation of tennis will require a collaborative effort. The public and private partnership is good. The tennis-in-school initiative is also the way to go. The national grass-roots sports development initiative is also a good idea. Specifically, I think Sani Ndanusa should resign. The sports minister, Bolaji Abdullahi, should revamp the national sports federations and create an Office of Sports Development and Accountability. This office will be part of the minister’s office and the staff will report to the minister. Most of the initiatives that Abdullahi has announced such as the open National Sports Festival should be handled by this office.

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