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There is need to close the existing gap in Nigerian tennis —Dr. Sadiq Abdullahi

The realisation is that tennis, along with several other sports, has gradually deteriorated. At a point, if you spoke about tennis on the African continent,…

The realisation is that tennis, along with several other sports, has gradually deteriorated. At a point, if you spoke about tennis on the African continent, clearly, you were talking about Nigeria.  Taking it back from the Thompson Onibokun, Lawrence Awopegba, and Yemisi Allen generation through to yours, what is it we did well at that time that we no longer do?

During this period we had outstanding ambassadors of the game. They won the regional championships, the African continental championships and the International championships. Looking at these people who passed it on to Kehinde Ajayi’s generation, and then on to Imonitie, Nduka and Tony Mmoh’s group before coming to mine, there was continuity. So each generation benefitted from the previous. This went on till the ’80s and the beginning of the ’90s before the gap came, which is still open. That gap needs to be closed, which is why I am here.

In all those years up to your generation, there used to be a circuit of tournaments in Nigeria. There was the Ogbe Hard Court in Benin; the Lagos Classics; the Dala Clay Court in Kano and the Kaduna Championship. Do you think we need to rediscover the possibility of having nationwide tournaments to be able to assist in the development of a game like tennis?

Absolutely! Tournaments are by-products of development programmes for players when you have a lot of outstanding players. These tournaments keep them going. When you do not have a lot of good players and people are not playing and the game is not growing, then sponsors run away from promoting the game. That is what happened in the ’90s. We all went in our different directions and didn’t come back to promote the game and we didn’t have a lot of junior players taking over from us. As a result, sponsors just backed out. But when you have good players that are outstanding, there is a need to have tournaments and then invite people from outside.

There was also the fact that Nigerian sports, until the mid ’80s, had a component of education. Some of the outstanding sports personalities were at the same educated because they got scholarships to go abroad. Do you think the end of that duality has affected our sports?

Yes, indeed it has. I went to Kufena Secondary School, Zaria. In those days, we had Barewa College, Government College and the Nigerian Military School (NMS). These four were competing at a very high level. I ran track, played football, tennis and basketball for my school.  There was balance between sports and education. We benefitted from that. It is not happening now, maybe because the boarding school concept, as it was [then], is gone, or maybe because of lack of commitment from state governments in trying to balance both. The impact of neglect of education is affecting sports and I think it is time to bring that back.  

You took sports to a very high level and also went on to be highly educated; could you talk about your life?

[Laughter] That was not an easy thing to do. I think the foundation was laid when I was in Kufena. When I retired in 1989, I went in and taught the game with a management firm in America where I worked until 1993, when I decided to change directions. So from 1994 to 2004, I went back to school. I spent ten years of my life trying to reconnect intellectually. I did my Master’s and Doctorate degree in Education with a specialisation in curriculum instruction and global education.

What do you hope to be doing now that you are back?

Combining sports and education. I am packaging an organisation, a coalition of concerned Nigerians in the Diaspora that is waiting for the Ministry of Education to send a delegation to talk about how that will be done. I am working very closely with Segun Odegbami to ensure education and sports are front burner issues. We are looking at pilot programmes. I have started talking to some of the commissioners of sports in various southern states and hope that by the time I leave, I would have made contacts to speak with commissioners in the northern states to have a kind of first level conversation with all of them. Odegbami and I are working closely on it and I think it is the way to go.

If you take statistics of people playing sports at a very high level, few of them are from the North. What do you think could be done to enhance sports in this region?

That is a challenge for me as a northerner. I think the time is right in trying to mobilise and move the North in a direction that will open up doors for a lot of people. The Williams sisters didn’t have to go to any elitist club. They started with a little programme. We can do that with tennis and other sports. I just need to reconnect with others who have the passion, who are willing, who can trust and believe that Sadiq Abdullahi is ready to work with those who are willing to make contributions to the North. This way, things will be put in place and a lot of the youths who are wasting away will have a chance at expertise in sports.

Kaduna used to be at the heart of one of the major circuit tournaments for tennis in Nigeria in the ’70s and ’80s. I was reading the papers sometime ago of some European couple doing some work in the Kaduna area…

I also read something like that with a Dutch Academy [in Kaduna]. I’m going to meet with the founder and already I have been working closely with Mohammed Ubali, who is the national junior coach. We have been talking about how to revive tennis in Kaduna. I think Kaduna will be a good place to start with the existing six or four tennis courts and create sponsorship banners for those who will come. We will also have a first class programme there that will be a model for the North. Then we can have a northern open. Dr [Abubakar Olusola] Saraki has indicated his willingness to help out.

I have spoken to the [Kaduna] state commissioner for education and the director of sports to find out how we could make it work and align ourselves with already existing programmes. There is this concept of public/private partnership going on right now; this is the time to actualise our vision.

You have also been doing a lot of writing on visioning in Nigeria. First it was for Vision 2010 and now it is Vision 2020. What is your take on all of that?

It all has to do with national development and the framework for Vision 2020. I started writing about two years ago and two of my articles have been published on the Nigerian Economic Summit group. I am hoping to be part of the committee that will shape education and sports.

You mentioned that you have been doing a lot of collaboration with Segun Odegbami who has been working on the International Academy for Sports and Education. Is there a way we could extract such into the landscape of Northern Nigeria?

We need a school like that. We can learn a lot from him and bring that idea here whilst working with him.

He is also a northerner…

Exactly; and a truly great guy. I am also secretary/treasurer of the International Assembly of the National Council for Social Studies in America. I’ll try to see if the organisation can adopt the school and provide some kind of technical support on tennis. Hopefully, when I re-establish myself in the North, we will find a location where we can do it. It will work.

I have a feeling that you are very optimistic despite the rather difficult scenario.

I have to be optimistic about the future because after 30 years in America, I feel that the focus now has shifted to Nigeria. I am optimistic because the conversations I am having are different. So my generation must plant seeds, whether at the legislative or executive level and come together to identify people who can make the right decisions and help spread the knowledge and begin to reshape the landscape for education and for sports. I am hoping that people buy into the idea and then we can go one step at a time, one project at a time.