Former national junior lawn tennis coach, Ubale Mohammed has lamented that lack of regular tournaments is the reason talented Nigerian players are leaving the country for the USA and Dubai. In this interview with Trust Sports, the coach disclosed that in the past two years, over 20 Nigerian players have dumped the country for Dubai where they are enjoying regular competitions. Mohammed also spoke on what stakeholders are doing to make Kaduna the hub of tennis in Nigeria.
To what extent has COVID-19 pandemic disrupted your activities as a lawn tennis coach?
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It is not easy but I am managing the situation to the best of my abilities. When it was at its peak, everything was at a standstill. But things are gradually picking up. As you can see, even now I am on the court with my players. Not long ago, we had a junior national tournament here in Kaduna. And we are planning to have another one again from March 24-28. So we are trying to get things back on track.
How did you keep your players going at the height of the health crisis?
I tried to engage them in physical exercise, some fitness drills which they observed at home to make sure that they didn’t lose form and interest in the sport. I ensured my players were not idle.
Were there any tennis tournaments in the country within the period?
Unfortunately, there was none. However, the situation was different in other African countries like South Africa where they had junior national and international tournaments.
What do you think is the consequence of this on Nigerian tennis?
I believe this is going to impact negatively on the form of our tennis players. Their ranking will also drop. It is only when you play international tournaments that you pick up points that will enhance your ranking.
What do you think is the way out of this unfortunate situation?
We have to go back to grassroots tennis development. This is exactly what we are trying to do in Kaduna State. I am, therefore, calling on tennis enthusiasts to please lend their support so we can get things moving again. Like I said, we had one junior tournament last year and we have lined up another for this month.
Would you say the Nigeria Tennis Federation is doing enough in this regard?
For now, I doubt if there are clear cut youth development programmes. I will appreciate it if they will be up and doing. We can’t sit down and continue to blame everything on COVID-19. Other countries are doing a lot even in the midst of COVID-19 so our case shouldn’t be different. I think we should emulate them, if we want to move forward.
In view of the present situation, would you say Nigeria is still a force to reckon with in African tennis?
Not long ago, we were among the top five countries in African tennis but I am afraid this is no longer the case. We used to be among the top five nations. So we have to go back to the drawing board. We can’t continue to sit and blame everything on COVID-19. We are not the only country affected by this unfortunate crisis. It has not been easy for the professional players who have no tournaments to play. Most of the players keep calling me to know what is happening but I tell them I am not in the federation so I don’t know what is going on there.
You are no longer the national junior tennis coach. Are you as motivated as before?
Tennis is my life, so nothing has changed. For some time now, I have not been engaged at the national level but that has not dampened my morale and commitment to tennis development in Nigeria. My happiness is that I am still doing what I know how to do best, trying to help young players realise their potential in the sport. I am still working with some of the junior players I have discovered.
Most of the players you discovered are now senior players. Have you found their replacements?
As you rightly observed, most of my junior players have graduated but I have discovered new ones that I am grooming. Like I told you, I am just finishing on court. I am organising a lot of junior tournaments to discover new players. Some of the senior players have travelled to the USA but most of them have moved to Dubai. In the last one or two years, I am telling you we have over 20 Nigerians that moved to Dubai. Nigeria is losing her best talents in tennis because there are no tournaments here. There are tournaments in these countries for them to play and earn a living. They can have up to four or five tournaments to play in a year. We hardly have one here so they have to find plan B. I tell you so many players have left this country. It is a worrisome trend that must be addressed immediately. They are doing well in Dubai. Some of them who are not playing are into coaching.
How much support is the government of Kaduna State giving to tennis?
So much support is coming from the government. For instance, the governor, His Excellency, Ahmed El-Rufa’i is trying to revive the international junior clay court tournament. He is working on infrastructure. I don’t know if you have been to Kaduna lately. You will be surprised by the amount of work the governor is putting in. If you come to Muritala Square, the facilities there are being brought to international standard. In Nigeria, there is never a sports complex that contains almost every sports facility like the Muritala sports complex. That is what the governor is trying to achieve.
Apart from government, what is the level of commitment on the part of other tennis stakeholders in the state?
We are all doing our bits to make Kaduna the hub of tennis in Nigeria. Tennis enthusiasts like Sadiq Abdullahi, Abdul Suleiman, Bulus, Bako, Ode and a host of others have been of tremendous support. I am not doing it alone.