Nigeria was once one of the best tennis-playing nations in the world. Although nobody from the country has won any of the Grand Slam titles, there was a time when Nigerian players were always in the equation when permutations of upcoming events were being made.

Then, especially in the 1970s up till the early 1990s, Nigeria had players like Nduka Odizor, David Imonitie, Tony Mmoh, and Sadiq Abdullahi, who not only brought glamour to the country’s game but was also good enough to compete successfully in the world circuit.

When Odizor, who was once ranked number 52nd in the world, eased off the challenges of Loic Courteau of France in the third round, seven-time Grand Slam winner John McEnroe’s doubles partner Peter Fleming of U.S. in the second round, and Guillermo Vilas of Argentina in the first round at the Wimbledon in 1983, many tennis watchers thought that at last, Nigeria had come to take its position in the comity of tennis playing nations. But that has not happened 40 years after.

Although Nigeria held its own in the Davis Cup, which is the tennis World Cup, up until the late 1990s, the country has not been able to fulfill its potential in the game that guarantees fame and fortune for its talented players.

As a matter of act, the country’s game has been on a downward spiral since the turn of the century such that it no longer features among elite African tennis-playing nations.

There have been efforts to revive the game in the recent past, but some of such efforts have not yielded the desired results. The introduction and/or revival of such competitions as the Ogbe Hard Court, Dala Hard Court, Governor’s Cup Lagos Tennis Championship, and the CBN Open Championship has only served to keep the game in the minds of its connoisseurs. They have not solved the problem of talent development that has bedeviled the country for so long. But that could be about to end.

Africa’s former number one star, Dr. Sadiq Abdullahi, believes that The Tennis Nigeria Vision Network (TNVN), which he champions, will, in 10 years from 2025, produce talented players that would take the country back among the world’s elite tennis-playing nations.

Describing TNVN as the formula the country needs to get back its place as Africa’s top nation in the game, Abdullahi said the programme has been formulated in such a way that talented young boys and girls across the country would find the pathway to greatness in the sport.

He explained: “TNVN is about identifying the most talented players from the zones. We have decided that if we can get two to four talented players from each of the zones and the FCT, then the vision will now seek resources for them, and take them through a path to success.

“The programme has residential and non-residential stages, which will lead to the after-school class and then to the elite programme. The first part of the vision is like a mini tennis stage, which ensures that every programme across the country will be registered with us. In it, the coaches will independently be working with their normal five to 10 players, with the best players identified and registered for proper development.

“We expect that every zone of the country will have an activity going on with players in the nine-to-five group and from this group we should be able to identify one or two talented players, who will move into the second phase, which is the primary school class. Once they get into primary school, we start monitoring and guiding them. But the primary school programme will still be non-residential because they are under-age.

“However, in agreement with their parents, we will take the talented ones to some designated schools, where they will be given specialised coaching to develop into elite players.”

Abdullahi revealed that TNVN would provide a tennis curriculum for schools involved in the project and ensure that they meet the requirements needed to continue being part of the programme.

“For example, if they are in a specialised secondary school, which starts from age 10, they will be in that school for six years, which means that they will graduate at 16 and after graduation, the best will join the elite programme. The Segun Odegbami School is willing to take four of the participants, boys or girls, who will stay in the school until they graduate at 16. If they meet all the criteria, they will move to the elite programme, which starts with players at age 17. They stay in the programme at the age of 17 or 18 and if they are outstanding, they will go into the professional ranks. But there are some conditions they have to meet to be in the elite class. That in essence, is what the vision entails.”

Abdullahi said TNVN would not be hampered by inadequate or lack of facilities as the participating schools must have at least two tennis courts to be part of the programme. He added that the project would encourage politicians to include tennis courts in their constituency projects to ensure the availability of the facility to even those who may not be part of the programme.

“Before you join us, you must have a programme and at least two or three tennis courts. But we can work with governments or politicians who want to do constituency projects. We can help them to build tennis courts if they want to build a sports centre.

“Facility is not the problem, but the funding. We need a lot of money for the programnme. It is developmental. Once a kid meets all the requirements and at 12 years old, that kid must be ready to attend world junior ranking events. At 12 years old, we will be taking the kids to the United States for further training and exposure. At 12, 13, and 14 you need to be in the junior circuit.

“Our problem is in identifying good coaches that will stay with modern coaching and then parental agreement, and all of that because if a kid meets our criteria, then we want to prepare that kid for the challenges in the circuit.

“If a kid does not attend world junior ranking events at 12, then he is not meeting the criteria. You see, the standard is very high.”

According to the Seoul 1988 Olympics star, if the TNVN project could get two talented players from each region and the FCT, it would have 12 solid players to train to international standards. That would guarantee Nigeria players for the Davis Cup and other top competitions.

“The project will start in 2025 and we are saying to Nigerians, give us 10 years and after these years, you will start seeing results. If somebody gets into the vision at 10, at 20 there must be something to hold on to. They should be on the pro circuit at 19 years. For the girls, maybe at 17 years. That is the vision.”

Abdullahi disclosed that one of the big challenges facing TNVN is how to sell the vision to corporate Nigeria and critical tennis stakeholders. He added: “This is a national developmental project that requires the buy-in of all stakeholders. This is my last effort at building something for Nigeria. It is not going to be easy and after it, I am done.

“However, I am excited because we have tennis courts in elite clubs in the country, even though some of the clubs do not allow children to learn with their facilities.

“In today’s world, one person cannot develop a player to international standard. We need everybody involved in tennis to be part of this project. We know that some people make money from organising tennis tournaments, but we are not trying to stop them. Rather, we will help them to make more money by developing players that will attract sponsors and big opportunities for the country.”

He acknowledged that North Africans and South Africa have good programmes that have kept their tennis on top in the continent. He added, however, that Nigeria’s population should be an advantage because the country has a large pool of talent to draw from.

“These countries have active tennis federations and good coaches. They have programmes that identify talents quickly, from ages nine and 10. Every opportunity they get, they train their kids to hit the ball correctly. They have better facilities than Nigeria, but we can overcome that handicap first by building a tennis culture in our people.

“When we have children of ages five, six, and seven years old, we can involve them in mini tennis, which doesn’t require that they leave their house to play the game. Parents can start training their children in small corners of their compounds, play with their children and get them started from that little space.”

He said that unity schools across the country would play significant roles in the programme because most of them have tennis courts.

“The plan is to identify the unity schools that have tennis courts and the leaders of the zones will now visit the schools to check out the state of the courts. Primary schools that also have tennis courts would serve as centres for the out-of-school programme.

“We have to prescribe the hour of tennis a child should play every week that does not affect his academics and health. Coaches would be assigned to the out-of-school programme because they will be the supervisors and counsellors of the process.”

Abdullahi said that TNVN would try to get in touch with the government to advise it to redefine its role in grassroots sports development.
“Unfortunately, we have not been doing things correctly. The government organises competitions without developing the athletes that will participate in these competitions.

“If the National Sports Commission comes back, the vision and mission should be clearly defined, reshaped and the people that will run it should have a clear path of progress to take.

“The NSC’s focus should be on helping states and local councils to develop athletes. We have to find a formula that ensures that the funds go straight to the local councils to help them sustain grassroots development programmes. If we don’t have the funds, then it is not going to work.”

The adjunct professor at Florida International University and Miami Dade College said the vision would also involve Nigerians in the Diaspora, who would be encouraged to join in developing the country’s tennis.

He said: “I have proposed nine priority areas for whatever the government wants to achieve in sports. The last one is Diaspora participation and fortunately, President Bola Ahmed Tinubu is interested in Diaspora participation in governance. If Nigerians in the Diasporas get involved in our sports, we just have to get them into the conversation.

“Some of the young ones want to represent the country, but the environment has to be right for them… once we make the situation right, it would be easy for us to bring them together and teach them what they stand to gain from representing their fatherland.”

Abdullahi is praying that the Tinubu administration would appoint a good sports personality to run the sector and build on what the immediate past administration did in sports.

“Some of us are concerned that if we don’t get it right with the appointment of a minister, everything we have done so far would be gone. A good minister will build on what Mr. Sunday Dare has started, looking at the merits, the impact, and also find ways of taking off from there.”

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