Veronica Oyibokia-Iwebema… A tennis great born on Ogbe Hard Court
No doubt, Veronica Oyibokia-Iwebema remains one of the greatest stars to emerge from the Nigerian tennis scene. Apart from being champion in the then Bendel State and also a national champion for many years, Oyibokia-Iwebema brought fame to many tennis competitions from the mid 1980s to the early 90s. Prominent among the competitions was the Ogbe Hard Court tennis championship in Benin City, which she ruled for over a decade. She was also a ‘warlord’ in the CBN All Nigeria Open, Okada Hard Court, Gulder tennis, Dala Hard Court and Kaduna Clay Court competitions.
Oyibokia-Iwebema started her tennis conquest from secondary school days and crowned her effort by becoming six times back-to-back single champion in the famous CBN tennis championship. Until she retired from active tennis in the mid 1990s, Oyibokia-Iwebema was a force to reckon with in the NOGA Hilton Abuja tennis tournament as well as the Wema Bank tennis championships.
She went on to represent Nigeria at Nairobi ‘87 All African Games where she paired with Rolake Olagbagi to grab a bronze medal in the doubles event. She also led Nigeria team to Cairo ’91 edition of the Games. She was awarded scholarship by the Nigerian Olympic Committee (NOC) to the United States Professional Tennis Registry (USPTR) in Hilton Head Island, USA, where she was trained as a Tennis Professional Coach. She was employed by Bendel State Sports Council and later the Union bank, where she rose to the position of senior manager.
Oyibokia-Iwebema spoke with The Guardian on her exploits as an all-rounder schoolgirl athlete, from table tennis, basketball, lawn tennis and the track, where she was a 400m runner.
“My most memorable competition as a school girl athlete was the National Sports Festival, Kaduna ’77, where I won the gold medal in both the single and double categories,” she recalled. “And for my effort as a gold medallist, I was awarded scholarship by the Bendel State government and my father did not to pay school fees any longer.”
Looking back to her elementary education at Convent school II Primary school and secondary school days at Ehriero Grammar School (Anglican Girls Grammar School) in Benin City, she recalled with a feeling of nostalgia: “In my days in the primary and secondary schools, school sports was a serious business. It was competitive, rewarding, with committed and disciplined athletes.
“My peers in school sports were Theresa Akpojaro, Ngozi Ozulu, Caroline Enuenwosu, Nosa Imafidon, Ronke Okpaise, Abiodun Akhigbe, Christine Aganbi, Doris Ehikhiametalor, Ann Tobia, Sumbo Olanfe and Rolake Olagbagi just to mention a few. They were keen competitors but in all, I remained unbeatable for many years.
“I ran the 400m and did the high jump in my primary school and I made the school team. In my secondary school, I played basketball, table tennis and lawn tennis. I was very good in the three sports but was advised by my coach to drop two so as to concentrate on lawn tennis..
Speaking further, Oyibokia-Iwebema said: “I was the schools, state and national champion in lawn tennis for many years and I got scholarship both at the secondary school level and throughout my four years in the university because I was also the NUGA champion.
“We had state and national school sports festival every year where I participated in lawn tennis and dominated both the singles and the doubles categories with the likes of Abiodun Akhigbe and Nosa Imafidon as my stiff competitors. From my secondary school days, I was able to compete in the national championships such as Ogbe Hard Court, CBN, All Nigeria Kaduna Clay Court, Dala Hard Court, Okada Hard Court, NOGA Hilton Abuja and Wema Bank Championships. In these championships, I was a force to be reckoned with. In the CBN Championship for example, I was the single champion six times back to back.”
According to Oyibokia-Iwebema, there was no dull moment during her school days and she was fortunate to always be on the winning side.
In 1987, however, Veronica tasted defeat for the first time in tennis. “We were in Abuja for the first Noga Hilton Hotel Championship and I was leading in the final set by 5 games to 1 in my semifinal against Nosa Imafidon with just one game left to win the match. But Nosa came from nowhere to win the match. I could not sleep that night,” stated.
Oyibokia-Iwebema says her involvement in sports at early stage gave her the opportunity to travel far and wide and meet people with different views about life. “I travelled to different countries in Africa and Europe including Zambia, Kenya, Egypt, Senegal, Libya, Paris, London and the US. With my exposure to international sports, I developed self-confidence and broadened my knowledge of both local and international sports administration. I became the first female Nigerian to be at the United States Professional Tennis Registry where I qualified as a trained lawn tennis coach. My early involvement in sports also broadened my horizon about life generally.
“The social and health benefits are overwhelming: I got scholarship from the then Bendel State (now Delta) throughout my secondary education, scholarship from my university (UNIBEN) for four years after winning the NUGA Games, scholarship from the Nigerian Olympic Committee to attend the United States Professional Tennis Registry (USPTR) in Hilton Head Island, USA, where I was trained as a Tennis Professional Coach, got employed easily by the Bendel State Sports Council and then the Union bank. I also enjoyed good health of mind and body because of my exercise level and by God’s grace. My children are into one sports or the other – like mother like children,” she added.
But Oyibokia-Iwebema, who also ruled the Gulder All Nigeria Open tennis from 1986 to 89, is sad to see school sports on the decline in the country due to corruption, lack of qualified sports administrators, lack of sports arenas/equipment, lack of trained/experienced coaches and dearth of sporting events/championships.
In her opinion, Nigeria needs qualified school administrators to be in position of sports administration, revive inter house sports in schools, proper sports programmes drawn for schools to follow, adequate sports infrastructures in schools, trained coaches assigned to schools to ‘catch them young,’ revive zonal, states and national competitions, scholarships/sponsorship for outstanding athletes, focused and committed athletes and renewed zeal from government and private institutions for sports to thrive.
She also spoke on importance of combining sports with education saying: “The importance of education for success in sports and life generally cannot be over emphasized. Knowledge they say is power and it is good for sports. With education, the athlete can assess his or her opponent correctly and plan well to defeat the opponent. The athlete is mentally tough and builds up confidence to be a champion and with education the athlete is fortified with a plan B and as such has something to fall on after sports,” she added.