There is great symbolism in the venue of the exhibition match played in South Africa by Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer. Apart from the exhibition played by Venus and Serena Williams at the Lagos Lawn Tennis Club in 2014, the Cape Town match marked the first time, since 1976, that multiple Grand Slam champions competed on African soil.
In 1976, there were 32 professional male tennis players in the world under the banner of World Championship Tennis (WCT), financed by Texas oil magnate, Lamar Hunt. Nigeria’s Olatunji Ajisomo Alabi (Lord Rumens) championed the effort to bring top-level tennis to Nigeria after the commissioning of the Centre Court of the Lagos Lawn Tennis Club.
At a meeting in Houston Texas, Alabi told Hunt, “If Africa is not included, then remove the “world” from WCT.” Lamar replied: “You’ve got a point there.” International tennis was on the way to Nigeria.
The preparation for the first world-class tournament in Nigeria received the approval of Gowon’s Administration, which consisted of Allison Ayida, Philip Asiodu, and Ime Ebong. The tournament was in progress when there was a change in government and days of mourning were imposed. Although the Obasanjo military administration approved the conclusion of the tournament, an over-zealous soldier unilaterally stormed onto the center-court during the semi-final match between Arthur Ashe and Netherlands’ Tom Okker. Players and spectators scrambled out of the premises.
Alabi always described the incident as “the saddest day for tennis in Nigeria and Africa.”
Thereafter, the effort of tennis enthusiasts, including Alhaji Raheem Adejumo, Dr. Olusola Saraki, Dr. Ismail Babatunde Jose, Alhaji A.O. G. Otiti, Chief Frank Ozona, Mr. Peter Thomas, Prince Semi Lufadeju and Chief Molade Okoya-Thomas, to bring top-class tennis back to Nigeria faltered on the reference to that tragic incident.
In 1978, international tennis competition returned to Nigeria when the Nigerian promoters convinced the Men’s International Professional Tennis Council (MIPTC) to sanction the Lagos Tennis Classic, then a Challenger event. It was sponsored by Dunlop Nigerian Industries and Nigeria Tobacco Company. Thereafter, Lord Rumens provided the US75, 000.00 prize money every year from 1983-1988.
The Association of Tennis Players (ATP) took over the Men’s Tennis. The Women’s Tennis Association was formed for the women. The International Tennis Federation became the regulatory body for the sport. Tennis events became graded as Grand Slam (2000 ranking points); Masters (1000); Masters (500) and other tournaments with fewer ranking points. The ITF stages Futures Tournaments like the Governor’s Cup in Lagos, for male and female players.
With the classification of tournaments by prize money and ranking points, the 250-point King Hassan Cup in Marrakech, Morocco is the only ATP tournament in Africa.
Although his mother was born in South Africa, Federer had not played a match in Africa. Nadal, however, played in junior events in Sun City where he won the Under-12 in one year and the Under-14 a year after.
The Match for Africa in the stadium that hosted the 2010 World Cup was organized by Roger Federer’s charity that supports education in Africa. The previous events had taken place outside African soil. This time, the Celebrity Doubles match pitched Bill Gates partnering Roger Federer against Trevor Noah with Rafael Nadal.
Federer’s team won 6/3. When asked the reason for their victory, Bill Gates said it was because they committed “no double faults.” It was Bill Gates’ fourth successful pairing with Federer and both of them wore green and white attire while their opponents were kitted in pink and white from Nadal’s clothiers.
A visibly happy Federer said that he started the Foundation at the age of 23. “I’ve played exhibitions all over the world in tiny stadiums. Here we are in this Stadium that hosted the World Cup.”
On his part, Nadal said: “It is an amazing experience here with the great people and kids. I was twice in Sun City as a kid and later as a spectator here when Spain won the 2010 Football World Cup.
Asked about his foundation for deaf children, Nadal replied, “It’s about giving back. In the world, a lot of people suffer.”
The Cape Town stadium had 51,954 spectators for the Match in Africa, a record highest attendance for a tennis event. The tennis court was a tiny rectangle in the middle of the pitch. There were courtside seats only on the sides but none behind the baselines.
Nigeria’s Committee that bided for hosting the 2010 World Cup was headed by Chief Segun Odegbami whose delegation toured many countries to promote the nation. South Africa was eventually chosen. The Stadium that hosted that global sports fiesta was the venue of a record-breaking tennis event. Could the ripples of the Nadal/Federer exhibition match lead to the return of a world-class competition to Africa?