Nduka “The Duke” Odizor is a Nigerian tennis legend. He is the last Nigerian to get to (and beyond) the second round of any grandslam tournament. He is also the only Nigerian to play on centre court at Wimbledon.
Nduka Odizor grew up in Maroko, a large slum that was near Victoria Island in Lagos. He attended Edward Blydon Memorial Primary School at Okesuna on Lagos Island. He sometimes worked as a ball boy at Ikoyi Club and Lagos Lawn Tennis Club. It was there that his interest in tennis grew. He once said that he was so poor, but he loved tennis so much, that he was faced with a decision of whether he should buy akara to eat (because he was very hungry) or go to the National Stadium by bus to watch tennis and he chose trek from Lagos Lawn Tennis Club to the stadium because he was going to be there all day and so he also had to eat.
He attended the famous New Era secondary school in Benin City. Governor Samuel Ogbemudia of the Mid-West State established the school as a centre of excellence for sportsmen and women, so that they can get an education and play sports, but Odizor said that the system broke down after Ogbemudia left office and the school began admitting “anybody”. Odizor played at the National Sports Festival and for the Nigerian National Team while he was still a teenager.
I had a neighbour who was a Nigerian tennis legend in the 1950s and 1960s. He was also very close to the Americans. This was during the Cold War when the Americans and Russians were competing for influence around the world. In the 1970s (after he had retired), my neighbour told the Americans that tennis was getting very popular in Nigerian and that they could create a good feeling towards Americans if they invested in Nigerian tennis. (This was revealed in the diplomatic papers that were released by Wikileaks).
The US Embassy got some American tennis players to participate at the Ogbe Hard Court tournamen (at the Ogbe Stadium in Benin). They got Pepsi/7up to sponsor the tournament. They also held many tennis clinics in Nigeria.
A visiting American professor called Dr Robert Wren saw Nduka Odizor playing at one of the USAID tennis clinics in the 1970s. He offered to sponsor Odizor’s education in the United States. Odizor finished his secondary school education at St Thomas High School, Houston. He also attended the University of Houston, where he graduated with a degree in Business Marketing and Finance in 1981.
Nduka “The Duke of Wimbledon” Odizor played at Wimbledon for the very first time in 1975. He played in the junior tournament on that occasion. He played in the senior tournament in 1982 and got to the second round before he was beaten by Swedish legend, Mats Wilander. However, it was his appearance at Wimbledon in 1983 that made waves.
Odizor got to the fourth round at Wimbledon in 1983 and he was just one victory away from the quarter-final when he was beaten by Chris Lewis of New Zealand.
Odizor said that he was given police protection by Scotland Yard when he played at Wimbledon because skin heads and other racist groups sent death threats to him. He said that police officers had to follow him where ever he went.
He also said that he suffered from racism many times on the tour. Some people would not want to share locker rooms with him, some wouldn’t want to practice with him and some wouldn’t want to play doubles with him.
He said that the problem of racism did not only exist abroad. He said that some Nigerians in Nigeria were also affected by it. For example, he said that he was very angry when he watched a Nigerian tennis star lose to an Ethiopian at the All Africa Games in Lagos in 1973. He said that he believed that even he, as a kid, could have beaten the Ethiopian and that the problem was that the Nigerian believed that the Ethiopian was better simply because of his lighter skin.
Odizor also got to the third round of the Australian Open in 1985, where he lost to American legend, John McEnroe. This match has gone into tennis history books because of a little trick that Odizor played. He surprised McEnroe by serving a underarm drop shot that earned him an ace. McEnroe was so surprised that he did not even move.
Odizor also got to the third round of the US Open on two occasions, 1985 and 1987.
He was not as succesful in the French Open, where he lost in the first round in 1986.
Nduka Odizor won singles titles in Lagos, Taiwan and Benin. He also won doubles titles in Monterrey (Mexico), Dallas, Tokyo and Sydney. He won 28 titles overall, including in Taipei, Lagos, Thessaloniki, Monterey, Tokyo, Forest hills in New York City, Benin City, etc.
His highest singles ranking was number 52 in the world in 1984 and number 20 in the doubles.
Nigerian National Team
He was part of Nigeria’s Davis Cup team that played in the Euro-Africa Zone Group 1 (just below the World Group. We got to the quarter final of that group in 1988 and 1989). He also represented Nigeria at the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, South Korea.
He established the DOIT Foundation after retiring and he has returned to Nigeria many times to run tennis clinics and to teach Nigerian children how to play the game.
You have got to watch this video. This is Nduka Odizor vs John McEnroe at the 1985 Australian Open. Odizor surprises McEnroe and scores an ace by serving an underarm dropshot.