Wife of Ondo State Governor, Betty Anyanwu-Akeredolu, has been involved in grassroots tennis development through her clinic for children between ages four and 14 in the state. She speaks with ’TOSIN OLUWALOWO on her interest in sports
What inspired your interest in tennis development in Ondo State?
My family is a tennis playing one; we are members of the Ibadan Recreation Club. While my kids were growing up, they all played tennis, and it was through my husband that I took interest in tennis. He was a corps member when we met, and he didn’t have money to take me out. So, tennis was our outing, I would sit at the court and watch while he played. So when we started having children, it was natural that we introduced them to tennis, even though I had given up the skills. At the club, there were some members that promoted the game. Our children had the opportunity to play at the club, and even kids from outside came. One Mr Okoro, who is dead now, was very diligent in it, and quite transparent. After each summer, he would send out a progress report, how we donated money and how he spent the money. He was very transparent, and we supported him. That was what we did at the Ibadan Recreation Club, and when we came over here, I continued to support the Supreme Sports Summer Tennis Clinic.
When we got here, I looked around for what I could do, and I knew that tennis would be one of the things I could promote, because nothing like that was in existence. So, we started in 2017, I called some people, brought in our family coach, who coached my kids, and also got some of the coaches here, and I told them this was what I wanted to do, and asked them if they would key in. I told them it was citizen driven, so nobody should think it was a government project, and that it wasn’t something they would be getting salaries from. Some of them keyed in, and every year, we have new executives to drive the programme. We are still struggling, but quite a number of people have come in, like those that can donate in kind, because we need refreshment for children, we also need T-shirts. It was the first year that we spent money on T-shirts, subsequent editions, people donated T-shirts. The only thing we still spend money on now is coaching, and then, we need to buy the tools, rackets and balls, although we are now encouraging parents to get rackets for their children if they are interested in what their children are doing.
How have children taken to it?
When we started, the kids, who were only three-year olds in 2017, who were just running around then can now handle rackets. After 2017, I knew that if we allowed them to come back the following year, they would have forgotten all that they learned. That led me to form Arabinrin Junior Tennis Clinic for them to continue practising. I needed a place where the kids could practise other than the stadium, because I felt the stadium was not too safe for them, it was in a rough corner of the town, and I didn’t want that. So, I started scouting for a place we could use. Luckily, I was told about the Akure Recreational Club. Their members were just old men, who just went there to drink and have fun in the evenings. I approached them to admit me. Before then, they didn’t have a woman as a member. So, they admitted me, and I told them I was coming with children and they agreed. Now, over 70 kids come in every Friday and Saturday to train. It’s been quite an interesting development, and I have friends in San Diego, who are also supporting us. The last time they came to Nigeria, they came with loads of shoes, rackets and balls for the children. With those supplies, some of the kids now have tennis shoes, and we have rackets and balls, though they are not enough. They are however planning to come back with more supplies this time around, so in a way, we are having people from outside that are picking up interest. But the biggest breakthrough was the court. The recreation club had only one court, and we had up to 70 kids. I approached a friend of ours, a CEO of a bank, who is also a tennis enthusiast, and he built for us a new tennis court with a stand.
What were the reactions of parents when you started in 2017?
That first year, we had a little over 100 kids. It was relatively high, we didn’t expect that much but it’s even higher now because parents now realise that children need a break during vacation to do some other things. I think it has come to stay, but where we have problem is in patronage and sponsorship. We need people to sponsor the clinic. The sponsorship is very low, people still see it as a government project, and we can only ask the coaches to help us subsidise it as they can’t do it for free. If we can get more organisations to sponsor us, we will be happy because so far, private citizens are the ones supporting us.
Is there any structure in place to help the kids become future stars?
Like I said, the sponsorship is extremely low, but we are making do with what we have at the moment. Let’s even get them off ground first. But as time goes on, we are being optimistic in terms of playing in national competitions which they are in already. They go to Ibadan and Abuja, and whenever they go for such competitions, we sponsor them with the little we have.
How do you think participation in sports for the young ones can help curb crime in Nigeria?
I did mention that apart from our desire to have future champions, it is also a way of directing our energy to useful things other than staying at home and being lured into social vices. It is definitely a kind of socialisation process, they meet friends. It’s a way of raising responsible and healthy children. We are also inculcating a healthy lifestyle. Any child that does sports is on the path to a healthy lifestyle.
How do you find time to still participate in sports with your tight schedule?
It’s something that I have always done, or been doing. If something is part of you, you can never get tired of doing it, I love just being around sports, and for me, it’s also recreational. Now that I have 70 of them, when I go to the recreational club, they come around me and entertain grandma. They sing for me and we have fun together.
Apart from tennis, which other sports do you participate?
I’m into yoga, which you can do in your room. I wake up early in the morning to do yoga, and recently, I now do taekwondo, that’s the cupcake.
What about football?
The last Women’s World Cup in France caught my attention, I never knew that girls could play football like that. It changed my perception about women’s football, I couldn’t believe it. It has never been my game anyway; I don’t even understand it at all. But I was amazed, maybe because of that feminine tendency in me. I was wondering how they were able to kick the football, otherwise, I never liked football. But it’s something that I can support.
Do you think enough is being done for the development of tennis at the grass-root level in Ondo and Nigeria?
No. It’s because we have always seen sports as a government thing, and that’s the problem. Citizens have to take it to a certain level before the government can step in, because government has a lot of things to deal with. At the grassroots, people can do it, I believe that citizens can drive the process, and raise it to a certain level. Now, we see a surge in interest, because watching those kids play, people are really fascinated. But if you knew these girls at age three and four in 2017 and now see them, you would be amazed at what practice could do. That shows you that practice makes perfection. But if we can now spread it, because people are clamouring, Owo will have a standard court, Okitipupa also has, so, after this, we will start planning.
Would you have allowed any of your children indulge in sports full-time if they had shown interest?
I surely would. Things have changed from what it used to be. If it were in the days of our parents, it would have been hard. But these days, the professions that people looked down upon are now the ones that are bringing the most money and accolades.