Sports Jonathan Igbinovia Laments Poor State Of Nigerian Tennis

Babalola Oluwatomiwa

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Former Nigerian number one tennis player, Jonathan Igbinovia, pours his heart out on the declining state of Nigerian tennis, how he was abandoned by stakeholders in the industry, and despite all that, how he managed to get to the top while playing active tennis. He spoke to Tomiwa Babalola in this interview on his dreams for Tennis in Nigeria.
Can we meet you?
jonathan igbinovia.jpg

"Well I am jonathan Igbinovia, former Nigeria's Tennis player, for many years right now, I'm also a tennis pro, and when I say pro that means I have my own tennis academy over there in Atlanta, so right now I'm into player development."

How long have u been into player development?

Ever since I quit professional tennis and then I started with working with the USTA, developing players in the south in Atlanta, and after then I started my own academy and everything is running successfully.

What's the name of the academy? "It's called country club de-south."

What's the capacity of the academy as we speak?
At the moment, we have about 80 kids and they range from age 9-17, and six of my students got scholarships into college at the age of 17 last fall, and they are the oldest of all of our students at the academy.

Do you have Nigerians in your academy? "No"

"Because I don't think Nigerian parents and care givers don't no what it takes to support because I tried, I sponsored myself with my own money that was two years ago when I brought two kids from Nigeria to Atlanta but guess what, at the end of the day people still talked bad about it, so for you to be great in tennis and in anything in life, if you have to be forced to do it, I don't think you will be successful. And that's just the bottom line because people won't stop lying to themselves and that's why they have not been able to produce any player yet because there's lack of interest in tennis here, people don't appreciate things that have a place in the future. And that's why I've stopped talking about tennis in Nigeria. You see I'm back in this country, not because of tennis but because of music. That's another part of me people don't know yet. That's what I'm doing from taking a break from Nigerian tennis, because nobody could understand what tennis is all about in this country, you can imagine I'm the last Nigerian to have won international tournament here, then they don't appreciate it so why should I talk to them about it.
"I strived hard to let them see what talent is in tennis here in Nigeria but it was like preaching to the wrong set of people so why should I waste my time."

What's your assessment of Tennis in the present Nigerian state?

"The problem is people need to get educated when it comes to tennis in Nigeria, the problem is everybody think tennis is just about hitting the ball but there's a whole lot more to it, you have to understand it, and it was too bad for me, you know you can't help where you came from, but unfortunately, I was from here and I cried for a whole year because I had talents measured to that of Federer, I've beaten top ten players in the world and I watched my own career go down because I was the only one doing it. I tried to prove myself to people, did a lot of things but yet, people took it for granted. But the truth is I can't blame them because they are not educated about it, they don't know what it means to have a talent, actually, there's something they call talent and there's something they call skill, you have to learn that or else you end your career an average player."
"And I was doing it by myself, and I could only take myself to that level I was as at then and then I realised that I just have to quit and do something else, after playing all the junior grand slams, I'd been left behind be the likes of Federer, after playing with him in Europe in 1998, but you have to understand this, while you are waiting, other people are getting better. You quote me on this, "if you are a kid of 13 years of age and you are still in this country by then, you cannot make it in tennis period."
"There are three steps in tennis in becoming top ten or even top five player in the world, and I know this because it is what I do for a living and that's what the entire United States Sports Development hire me for, I build players, develop them and at the first glance, I can tell you who has it and who doesn't."
"Even while I was playing I never thought I was going to end up as a tennis coach, I was just doing my thing back them. I can tell you now what Rafael Nadal is doing wrong and what he has to add to his game that he will beat Djokovic and Federer, so, it's either you have that ability or you don't, and that makes it easier for me."
"I was talking about how to build players earlier, there are 10 Russian kids in my academy, they are non Americans, neither are they Nigerians, and their parents brought them from Russia to my academy. Why me, and why do they have to bring them to my academy, trusting their kids to a Nigerian, because seeing is believing and success is evident. When I say nine years, nine years to thirteen is pretty much technique because the bone is not that strong yet, so, any habit you have will stay with you from age nine, and age thirteen, that's when you start getting stronger, and start. To walk on your footwork."
"Now think about this, a kid that's used to training in this kind of environment where he's not properly taught, it's not about hitting the ball, you can stay on this court, hit the ball for five hours and a kid somewhere in Europe will train for two hours and he will beat you up, and that's the way it is but I don't think the platform is right and until people what tennis is all about before they can really help the game of tennis in Nigeria."

Someone said at age five, if as a tennis player you can return a service, how true is that?

You see, you can't expect people who just sit and watch tennis to tell you the technicality of the game, in career, I've gained a lot experience, not just from playing, I also gained experience working with the kids, while working with some of the greatest players in the world right now, John Isner, even Serena Williams and my partner, is the current hitting partner for Serena, Ronnie Pooh and a lot of people can say a lot of things but you have to put it into practice. At age five, no one should expect a player to return a service at that stage. All they are supposed to teach that age category players is the technique and muscle memory till the age of thirteen."
"From age thirteen to fifteen, footwork and the brain starts to develop at age sixteen, so you can't jump the gun."
"When you have bad people around you, who are suggesting bad things to you, it has a way of weighing you down, and that's what happened to them, they listened to people who haven't done anything for them, and look at them now they are back here. I know the reason I chose to help them back then, when I was their age, I was top 15 in the world in the junior category, and later graduated to the number one position also in that category and number one in the men's category, go ask anybody, and you know my brothers, they do play tennis, how come I don't take my brothers? How come I took two people, I'm not that rich, but I did it because nobody helped me during my time. The first time I qualified to play in the Grand Slam, Federer was number six and Nabandia was number three. The first time I qualified to play in the grand Slam, I was still here in Nigeria. I qualified because of my ranking and I was informed I was in the main draw and the country was supposed to take care of that, guess how I made it to the US, I was seventeen years old when I won the biggest tournament here men's, country club and Suleman Yakubu was number one then and the prize was 250,000 naira, that was 1997. I was the youngest to join the Davis cup team, and people were still ignorant so I don't even have to tell people, so that money was the money I kept to buy my ticket to the US then. There was only one man who helped me out back then, Engineer Akpan. On the other hand, I could have used the money to get a better apartment for my family because we were staying in an uncomfortable place but I had a plan for the future, I knew back then there was something I needed to do and it was that money I used in achieving my plan."
"The Nigerian Tennis Federation can't come to me about anything,I don't care, I say it the way the way it is. I've told them tennis is going down but they keep deceiving people by saying tennis is improving."

What do you make of this tennis league that has just been introduced, do you think it's a good idea?

Ofcourse, when you create something that will always keep the players busy, it is a good idea because you need practice match, and league will give them an opportunity to practice. What I'm saying is this, I have a foundation which I don't want to talk about right now because I believe it's a waste of time, you know why? What I'm going to prove to people, go write this down, from now till seven years, you will see me in the player box and my kids will be playing the grand Slam final, I said it. They are two right now, one is nine and the other 11 and I'm saying this authoritatively that by the time they are nineteen, they will be grand Slam final and I can put everything on that right now. They are two black American girls, whose last name is Williams, and they aren't from the Serena Williams family. They also have such talent that cannot be compared to any right now. One is Zari and the other is Lolo Williams. One thing that differentiates them from the Serena and Venus Williams is that they are more beautiful."