Gripping Rainoil Clay Court Tennis Final Shows Potential of Nigerian Tennis  

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In a clash of power and skill versus experience and guile, it was the former that won on Sunday as Benue State star Henry Atseye crushed Nigerian No. 2 and Davis Cup player Joseph Imeh in the final set of the maiden Rainoil Clay Court Tennis Tournament at the Lagos Country Club. Spectators were in raptures as the hard-hitting Atseye pounded his higher-ranked opponent, winning the decider 6-2 after earlier taking the first set 6-3 and dropping the second 7-5. Trundling around the court with the deceptive speed of a grizzly bear, the in-form Atseye, who had won the doubles crown a day earlier, had an answer for everything his opponent threw at him. It was an inspired display that drew gasps and cheers from an appreciative audience. 

I f you missed this year’s event, you can expect to see more fascinating contests again next year as the tournament sponsor, and CEO of Rainoil, Gabriel Ogbechie, committed to a bigger and better second edition. That’s high fives for the downstream energy player as our tennis stars need more of these tournaments if they are to emulate the feats of legends like Nduka Odizor, Tony Mmoh, David Imonitie, Veronica Oyibokhia and other top Nigerian stars of the 80s and 90s. There is too much money in the global game today for our best talents not to be taking a healthy slice of the cake.
I followed the match with a number of friends who themselves are tennis buffs, comparing notes as we digested the more memorable moments. Mostly though I watched from a different perspective. As ferociously struck winners and brilliant passing shots rained down both sides of the court it amazed me that there were boys who could play the game this beautifully in Nigeria, yet outside the industry they were unknown to anyone. I thought, a tad sadly, that given the on-court passion and the delight in the stands, the show put up by both players deserved a wider audience.
I could visualize a proper filming of the match on national television, and was sure it would create a decent buzz. Like we did at the arena, fans would have debated about who the better player was; what the winner did best and what the loser could have done better; whether the surface influenced the outcome or whether the rankings made any sense; and why Nigerians were not making a bigger impact on the world stage. Then, invariably, attention would have switched to the next tournament with all sorts of themes playing up in the media, including those of revenge and the bounce back of fallen favourites.
Indeed there were a few surprises. Top players like Sylvester Emmanuel, Thomas Out and reigning CBN men’s champion Abdulmumuni Babalola fell by the wayside. The same would have played out in the women’s side of the draw where reigning CBN Open champion Sarah Adegoke avenged her defeat at the Dala Open to Blessing Samuel, by taking the crown in straight sets.
Still I cannot stress the need for more money in our domestic sports. More sponsors need to realize that getting behind tournaments like this is a way of building lasting value within. A healthier wealthier society is good for everyone as well as their businesses. The players particularly need to earn more money to be able to finance their careers. While Atseye headed home with about N800,000 for his double singles-doubles win, Adegoke got N300,000. In the way we view sports in Nigeria that is ‘big money’ for the winners, but in the reality of a sports career that buys you little.
This is no attempt to take any shine off the magnanimity of Rainoil, who must be thanked for investing a good few millions in the game in these austere times, but a call for others to follow their lead. I am sure the players would have been very appreciative, especially as national tournaments are even fewer. The reality is that the making of sports champions involves a whole lot more than our players can afford. Many times I see people compare our players to foreign professionals and conclude that ours are lazy and unserious. I vehemently disagree with that view, and I have said here in the past that such arguments are akin to comparing the Nigerian army with those of the United States, the UK, and Russia.
If our players can perform at the level that Atseye and Imeh displayed, then imagine how much better they can be if they could afford personal physical trainers, dieticians, physiotherapists, top class coaches, the right nutrition, the right facilities to train, and the mentality that comes with knowing your next meal or kit or house rent or mode of transportation is not a problem. Calculate how much it would take to pay for these and you would get a fair picture of what our players should earn in a year.
Ogbechie himself alluded to that when he noted that international players like Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal have earned over $100m (N3.6b) just playing the game and that Nigerian stars deserved more. He is right. Even small time players from Europe, America, Asia and South America, dwarf our players in earnings. They also have better facilities, better coaching, and a better all-round support system.
Well paid stars are also great for the marketability of the sport. I have often argued here that no sport can succeed without them. While fans love sports, it is the stars they follow and are preoccupied with. If 100 people follow Rainoil Tennis on Twitter, Atseye and Imeh would probably have about 3000 followers each. Cristiano Ronaldo has almost 20 times more followers on Twitter than La Liga. Wayne Rooney has more Twitter followers than the English Premier League. Same trend is reflected across all social media hubs. Major sponsors go where the fans are, and the fans follow the stars.