The Tennis Player, the Nigerian Club and the Failed Coup

The Lagos Lawn Tennis Club (LLTC), the oldest tennis club in Nigeria and one of the oldest in Africa was one of many sites during a 1976 coup that required Arthur Ashe’s evacuation.

The second week of August 2018 — as the pro-associations WTA and ATP prepped for the hard courts of the the US Open — the Lagos Lawn Tennis Club (LLTC) a nine-court sanctuary in the middle of bustling Lagos Island, had its own big announcement: a new name and a new logo for the Governor’s Cup Lagos Tennis Championship. After spending nearly 30 years as a an International Tennis Federation (ITF) Futures Tournament — an entry point for pros seeking ranking points — the Lagos government wanted an upgrade.

“We are moving the tournament up to the Challenger Circuit,” announced Afolabi Salami, vice chair of the Central Working Committee of the new Lagos Open. “A little step after this and we would be having the likes of Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, the Williams sisters (Serena and Venus), Angela Keber and more coming to our shores to compete.”

Everything old is new again, so the antiquated trope goes. The new tournament is set to reclaim the Nigeria’s glory days by taking on the name of an international tennis tournament that took place in Lagos from 1971 to 1976 and hosted such great American players as Arthur Ashe, Stan Smith, Bob Lutz and Dick Stockton. But can those heady days be redone? Consider the day tennis became political at the LLTC…

Beginning in the 1970s, soccer was the official sport of rebellion as decolonization raged across the continent. But during a meeting of the ATP, Cliff Drysdale mentioned that Johannesburg wanted a South Africa Open for the tour, before turning to his good friend, confidante and comrade, Arthur Ashe, stating, “But they’d never let you play.” Drysdale meant that the apartheid government of his native country would refuse Ashe, a black player, a visa. Ashe nonetheless pushed for one, which Prime Minister John Vorster promptly rejected. In response, Ashe hit the road. For 18 days in 1971, he and another pal, Stan Smith, went on a 2,500-mile tennis expedition of six African countries: Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, Uganda, Ghana — and Nigeria.

Ashe took a lot of flak for it. He took it in stride. In 1973, he got his visa to play the South Africa Open. He came back to sub-Saharan Africa practically every year for the rest of his life. “A lot of people, a lot of blacks, say I should not lend the South Africans dignity by applying for a passport,” Ashe told Sports Illustrated in 1971. “My feeling was, I had to confront them to make it difficult for them… My involvement in the controversy has been my passport through Africa.” One man who especially took notice was Olatunji Ajisomo Abubakar Sadiq Alabi, better known as Lord Rumens, a Nigerian tycoon, philanthropist and socialite. Then president of the LLTC, in 1976, Rumans invited Ashe back to Nigeria to play in the $60,000 World Championship Tennis (WCT) Lagos Tennis Classic, also known as the Lagos Open.

Up until January 1976, all seemed relatively calm in a country 16 years out of independence from Great Britain. But in January, demonstrations in front of the U.S. Embassy started taking place on a daily basis. Ashe and his entourage decided to fly to Lagos anyway — potential upheaval or not. But on that Friday, February 13th, the fourth day of the Open, General Murtala Mohammed, the Nigerian Head of State, was stuck in a traffic jam — not unusual in the most crowded city in the most populous country in Africa. But unlike most African leaders, Mohammed travelled without an armed security escort. When a lieutenant colonel, a physical education instructor named Bukar Suka Dimka, and three other officers filled his metallic-black Mercedes Benz with bullets, Mohammed died on site. Forces loyal to Mohammed crushed the coup several hours later.

John McDonald, the International Director of the WCT, pushed for the players to continue despite the tumultuous conditions. If they didn’t play, they wouldn’t be let out of the country, he said, as Nigerian custom officials were holding their passports. The matches resumed Sunday, February 15th with four Americans (Stockton, Lutz, Ashe and Jeff Borowiak) in the quarterfinals.

On Monday, February 16, 1976, middle class Nigerians filled the terraces of the historic LLTC to the brim, ready to watch their black hero play his semi-final match against Borowiak. Ashe had just won the first set in a tie-break and was about to serve at a game apiece when five men marched on to the court. One of the soldiers shoved the barrel of his machine gun into the back of Ashe’s sweat-soaked shirt. Another, an army Captain loyal to Mohammed, shouted at the crowd “What are you doing? We are in mourning. You are making money!” Ashe and Borowiak walked off the court with arms raised, leaving their gear behind. Everyone else ran for their lives.

Donald Easum, the U.S. ambassador to Nigeria, had been watching the semi-final match with his security detail. Once outside the stadium, he located Ashe and Borowiak and secured vehicles to transport them to the Embassy. On their way, Ashe and Borowiak’s car came across another traffic jam caused by a soldier beating a Nigerian spectator in the middle of the road. The players got out of the car and ran to the Embassy on foot. At the gate, they passed through a group of anti-American demonstrators who chanted, “Down with the CIA,” and “Yankee, go home.”

The 18-man WCT contingent comprising 14 players, including Ashe, two officials and two English journalists spent the night at the Embassy. They departed in a convoy of cars with an armed police escort the next morning from Lagos International Airport — renamed ‘Murtala Mohammed International Airport’ — the first foreigners allowed to leave after the failed coup. Ashe was not the only famous athlete on a promotional trip in Nigeria, however. Brazilian soccer luminary, Pelé, was in Lagos on a Pepsi-Cola-sponsored marketing tour, which included an exhibition match and soccer clinics around the city. He would have to wait. Ashe and company boarded a military aircraft bound for Accra, Ghana, at 7am and caught the 8:15am Al-Italia flight to Rome. The start of Rome WCT was delayed by a day in order to accommodate the players coming from Lagos WCT.

“Look at it this way, Ashe told the March 25, 1976 edition of Jet magazine, “if President Ford had been killed and then two days later a tennis tournament continued in the city where the assassination occurred, that wouldn’t look too good.”

Ashe defeated Bob Lutz in three sets in the Rome finals and continued on to the Caracas WCT. During the middle of the tournament, Ashe completed his unfinished Lagos semifinal match against Borowiak, beating him in two sets. The following day, April 2, he faced Stockton in the final and lost 6–3, 6–2 — Stockton’s first ever victory over Ashe. The WCT never held another tennis tournament in Nigeria. “The incident has done a lot of damage to Black Africa. Anyone wanting to play a tournament there now will probably hesitate,” Ashe lamented to Jet. “Unfortunately, that’s the mentality toward Black Africa.”

Tennis still continued at the LLTC. During the first year of the military government of General Olusegun Obasanjo in 1977, the LLTC did not hold a tournament. In 1978, the Men’s International Professional Tennis Council (MIPTC), a rival of the WTC, took over the Lagos tournament and ran it as a Grand Prix through 1980, when the ITF turned it into the Lagos Challenger until 1991. Since then, although Nigeria has produced such standouts as Olympians Tony Mmoh and Sule Ladipo in the 1980s and 1990s, the country has held only the Futures, still awaiting its own Ashe.

Currently, the Lagos Lawn Tennis Club has two up-and-coming juniors, the first to compete on a global stage: Marylove Edwards, 15, who left to train at the Nick Bollettieri/IMG Tennis Academy in Florida; and Barakat Oyinlomo Quadre, 16, the highest ranked Nigerian in the WTA. Whitney Osuigwe, 17 — a former ITF Junior №1 — whose father, Desmond, grew up playing on the courts of Lagos, left Nigeria to play at Jackson State University before joining the Bollettieri/IMG Tennis Academy. Osuigwe, who identifies as American, is №143 on the WTA, with a career high of №103.

Adrian Margaret Brune is a native Oklahoman who lives, works, writes, runs and tries to play tennis in Manhattan.

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