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The Story of Lagos’ Ill-Fated 1976 Professional Tennis Tournament

Arthur Ashe
Arthur Ashe

It was Monday, February 16, 1976, a sunny day in Lagos, just before noon. The Lagos Lawn Tennis Club terraces were filled with middle-class Nigerians and foreign expatriates. Arthur Ashe, current Wimbledon champion, was playing his semi-final match against Jeff Borowiak, a fellow American on centre court. The event was the $60,000 Lagos Tennis Classic tournament, part of the World Championship Tennis (WCT) pro circuit series, and Black Africa’s first professional tennis tournament. Ashe had just won the first set in a tie break. It was a game apiece in the second set and Ashe was about to serve. As he threw the tennis ball into the air, five men marched on to the court via the players’ entrance.

The spectators watched as the men approached Ashe. One of the men was in a brown suit while the others were in military outfit. The leader of the group, an army Captain, shouted “What are you doing? We are mourning. You are making money. Are you all mad? Please go. Please go.” One of the soldiers shoved the cold steel of his machine gun into the back of Ashe’s sweat-soaked shirt to push him off the court. Ashe walked off the court with his two arms raised in the air, leaving his gear behind. The other soldiers proceeded to clear the Main stand, East and West wing terraces. Pandemonium broke out as spectators ran from their seats for the main exit before the soldiers got to them. The Nigerian spectators moved quicker than their bewildered foreign counterparts. They were well aware of their countrymen’s brutality. Ashe however headed to the dressing room.

In January, a month before the start of the Lagos Tennis Classic, Dick Stockton, an American tennis player, had visited the WCT headquarters in Dallas, Texas. He was concerned about travelling to Lagos to play in the Lagos Tennis Classic. He had read reports, in the local Dallas papers, of anti-American demonstrations in front of the US Embassy in Lagos. “I said to them that this could potentially be a very dangerous situation if these reports about all these anti-American demonstrations are true,” Stockton recalled. WCT officials assured him by saying “we have been in touch with the State Department and they told us that everything is fine, there is no reason to worry.”

Arthur Ashe played a key role in influencing WCT’s decision to take the event to Lagos. He had been to Nigeria in 1970 with fellow American tennis star, Stan Smith, as part of a US State Department goodwill tour. This experience had made him keen to promote tennis in Black Africa. The Lagos Lawn Tennis Club fulfilled every WCT condition to host the event which included providing the prize money for the singles and doubles’ tournaments and the building of a new centre court. World Championship Tennis signed a five-year agreement with the Lagos Lawn Tennis Club to host an annual series of WCT tennis tournaments in Lagos. The 14 WCT players drawn to participate in the Lagos Tennis Classic were Arthur Ashe (USA), Tom Okker (HOL), Dick Crealy (AUS), Harold Solomon (USA), Jeff Borowiak (USA), Brian Fairlie (NZL), Eddie Dibbs (USA), Ismail El Shafei (EGY), Wojtek Fibak (POL), Karl Meiler (GER), Bob Lutz (USA), Stan Smith (USA), Erik Van Dillen (USA), and Dick Stockton (USA). Nigeria’s two best tennis players, Lawrence Awopegba and Yemisi Allan, were given wild card entries to compete in the tournament alongside some of the best tennis players in the world.

John McDonald, WCT’s International Director, was in the Lagos Lawn Tennis Club dressing room with a plastic bag containing WCT tennis players’ passports that fateful February 16 when Ashe entered. He had just been to the Lagos International Airport to retrieve them. Nigerian immigration officials had collected most of the players’ passports on their arrival from Barcelona and held on to them because their visas needed to be revalidated. These players were unhappy about leaving their passports behind but had no choice if they wanted to be permitted to leave the airport.

The man in the brown suit burst the door open and stepped into the dressing room with a big stick. He was accompanied by a soldier who ordered McDonald and Ashe to get out. The man with the stick slammed it on the table to emphasize this order and took a swing at the men as they ran away. The two men ran out of the stadium on to the street which was filled with people fleeing in all directions. McDonald spotted John Parsons, the Daily Mail tennis correspondent who travelled with the WCT contingent to Lagos, heading in the opposite direction. A soldier with an ebony stick shouted at Parsons “Where are you going?” as he clubbed him across the back. Parsons had been on his way to the local Reuters office to file the breaking story with the Daily Mail; instead, he got an 18-inch weal on his back for his effort.

Jeff Borowiak
CANADA – AUGUST 22: Jeff Borowiak 1977 Canadian Open tennis Champion (Photo by John Mahler/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

Donald Easum, US ambassador, was in the terraces watching the semi-final match with his security detail, a young marine guard in civilian clothes. He located Ashe, Borowiak and McDonald outside the stadium and secured vehicles to transport them to the US Embassy. Ashe and Borowiak got into one car while McDonald was put in another car. On their way, Ashe and Borowiak’s vehicle was held up in a traffic jam because a soldier was beating a Nigerian spectator in the middle of the road. The players got out of the car and headed to the US Embassy on foot. The Hungarian ambassador on his way from the Lagos Lawn Tennis Club offered them a ride to their destination in his limousine. Easum and the marine guard chose to walk to the US Embassy and had to pass through a group of anti-American demonstrators who chanted in protest with placards declaring “Down with the CIA” and “Yankee, go home.” Some carried pictures of the Nigerian Head of State with placards lauding him.

Friday the 13th was supposed to be the fourth day of the Lagos Tennis Classic tournament. General Murtala Mohammed, the Nigerian Head of State, was on his way from his Ikoyi residence to his office at the army headquarters in Dodan barracks. His metallic-black Mercedes Benz was stuck in a traffic jam near the Federal secretariat shortly after 8 a.m. The General had his Aide-de-Camp beside him while his orderly sat in front with the driver. He, unlike General Gowon, his predecessor, travelled without an armed security escort.

A group of men with machine guns strolled to the General’s vehicle and fired at the car and its occupants. Pedestrians and drivers stuck in the traffic jam scampered for safety. One of the gunmen fired a whole magazine of bullets at the car, reloaded and then fired another magazine at it. The gunmen left the bullet-riddled car and headed for the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation. The leader of the group was the head of the Nigerian Army Physical Training Corps, Lt. Colonel Bukar Dimka, a 33-year-old man with a waxed walrus moustache and a deep tribal mark on each cheek. He announced from the radio station that the ‘Young Revolutionaries’ had overthrown the Government and declared a 6am to 6pm (sic) nationwide curfew while imploring listeners to stay by their radios for further announcements. His short recorded broadcast played repeatedly on the radio throughout the morning and was interspersed with martial music.

Dick Stockton was asleep in his room at the Federal Palace hotel when his hotel telephone rang. It was Paul Svehlik, the WCT tour manager. He told Stockton about the attempted coup and cancellation of the Lagos Tennis Classic matches for that day. A shocked Stockton was told to inform the other four American tennis players at the hotel. The instruction was to stay in the hotel until further notice. One of the Americans that Stockton called was Eddie Dibbs who asked “What the hell’s a coup?” when he saw Stockton. Pele, the Brazilian soccer superstar, and his entourage were also at the Federal Palace hotel when they heard about the coup attempt. They stayed beside the radio in their hotel room to find out what was happening. He was in Lagos on a Pepsi-Cola sponsored marketing tour to play an exhibition match and run some soccer clinics.

Around lunchtime, the five tennis players went down to the hotel’s swimming pool area to relax. Eddie Dibbs, Harold Solomon, Bob Lutz, Erik Van Dillen and Dick Stockton were by the pool when 30-40 soldiers with machine guns surrounded the area. The scared hotel manager came to the swimming pool and told the guests in the area to get back into the hotel for their safety. Everyone was unsure what the soldiers were going to do.

The Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation went off air around 3 pm when Federal Government troops tried to recapture the radio station from the coup plotters. Dimka escaped during a brief gunfire exchange between Federal forces and his men. The radio station returned to air around 4 pm playing popular Highlife music. At 6.20 pm, a spokesman for the Federal Military Government came on air to announce that the coup attempt had been crushed with several arrests made. He stated that a 6 pm to 6am curfew was in place throughout the country and all borders and airports were closed until further notice. There was no mention of the fate of the Head of State. Lagos, the busiest city in Black Africa, was subdued as most Lagosians stayed indoors by their radios. The city was on high security alert. There were numerous roadblocks all over the city manned by soldiers tasked with maintaining security and capturing suspected coup plotters. There was no further radio announcement from the Federal Military Government that Friday.

The five American players received a phone call from the US Embassy that evening and were told to pack their stuff and be prepared to leave the hotel. The Federal Palace Hotel wasn’t considered safe. Donald Easum sent a minibus to evacuate the players. The driver of the minibus took a wrong turn on the way back and got into an argument with a soldier stationed at a roadblock. The soldier pointed his machine gun at the vehicle and the tennis players thought they were going to die. He eventually let them go through after he was satisfied that they were harmless. There were no spare rooms at the US ambassador’s residence for the five American players because Ashe, Borowiak and Tom Okker (a Dutch tennis player) were already staying there. This meant that alternative accommodation had to be arranged with an American family. “We descended on this poor family,” Bob Lutz recalled. “They were an elderly couple and he worked for the US Embassy.”

The assassination of General Mohammed was officially announced around noon on February 14 and his deputy, General Obasanjo, was named as his successor. His corpse was flown to Kano, that Saturday, and buried in his hometown according to Muslim rites. The Federal Military Government announced seven days of national mourning in honour of the slain Head of State.

Rumours circulated across the country that the US Government via the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was involved in the coup attempt and assassination of General Mohammed. This was because of the well-publicised differences between the US Government and the Nigerian Government over the latter’s support for the soviet-backed People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA). Tennis matches scheduled for Saturday were cancelled because of the national mourning.

John McDonald pushed for the players to continue with the tournament and this led to a big argument between him and some of the American players who weren’t willing to play in such unsafe conditions. McDonald told the players that if they didn’t play then they wouldn’t be let out of the country. This was because their passports were still at the time with Nigerian custom officials who had taken them for visa revalidation.

“We were told that the last coup that had taken place was a bloodless coup and no one was able to get out of the country for a while,” Stan Smith said. “We were concerned that we would not get out of the country to go to the next tournament.”

Lagos Lawn Tennis Club officials contacted McDonald late Saturday to inform him that Federal Military Government had authorised the resumption of the tennis tournament on Sunday. The Government also promised to provide a plane to fly the players out of the country at the end of the tournament despite the closure of the national borders and airports. John McDonald contacted the 8 players still left in the singles tournament to notify them that the event was back on. There were six Americans, a German and an Australian in the quarter-finals. The plan was to play the quarter-finals on Sunday and the semi-final and final matches on Monday to make up for the two lost days – Friday and Saturday. The doubles tournament which was in the semi-final stage was cancelled because there wasn’t enough time to fit it into the schedule.

The quarter-final matches resumed at 11 am on Sunday, February 15 and all the four matches went smoothly without any incident. Four Americans {Dick Stockton, Bob Lutz, Arthur Ashe and Jeff Borowiak} made it through to the semi-final stage in straight sets. The Lagos heat sapped the players’ strength and motivation so that players who lost the first set went on to lose the match. The players weren’t provided with cold drinks by the tournament organizers and struggled as a result. Some of them snuck into the air-conditioned room close to centre court for a few seconds to cool down during game change-overs. The match umpires permitted them to do this. February would go on to be the hottest month of that year in Lagos.

Sunday was a relatively calm day in Lagos after Friday’s upheaval which meant that Arthur Ashe, Jeff Borowiak and Tom Okker with Donald Easum could go to the Brazilian ambassador’s residence to have lunch with Pele. Whereas the five American players staying with the elderly American couple had nothing to do. “They had this world professional dartboard and darts and we were bored. There were these huge lizards running around the property,” Erik Van Dillen said. “We decided to go on a big safari hunt and see if we can get them. We weren’t very politically correct at the time.” The lizards were too quick for the players despite their best efforts. “So Eddie Dibbs is going one way and I am going another and he throws a dart which ricochets off the cement floor and sticks right into my leg. It hurt for a little bit.” Bob Lutz laughed as he recalled the incident. “We had a lot of fun considering what was happening.”

Dibbs and Lutz later approached some soldiers stationed at a roadblock down the street to chat with them. The soldiers were eating their rations and seemed friendly. The players told them that they were in Lagos to play a tennis tournament. All of a sudden, their Commanding Officer showed up and shouted at the players “What are you doing here? Are you CIA? Are you spies? Get out of here!” The players hurried back to their residence.

The 18-man WCT contingent comprising of 14 players, 2 WCT officials and 2 English journalists departed from their Ikoyi rendezvous point in a convoy of cars in the early hours of Tuesday, February 17, for Lagos International Airport. The Federal Military Government provided an armed police escort to the airport. This ensured that the vehicles were able to pass through the roadblocks that dotted the city. The Government also kept its word by providing an aeroplane and lifting it’s imposed flight restrictions to let the tennis contingent leave Lagos airspace. They were the first foreigners allowed to leave the country after the attempted coup. The local Pepsi-Cola Manager approached Donald Easum the day before to enquire about Pele and his entourage travelling with the WCT contingent but official government permission couldn’t be secured in time for this to happen. There was a large military presence at the airport to prevent fugitives like Dimka from leaving the country. The plane departed at 7.00 am in order to catch the AZ 837 Alitalia plane which left Accra at 8.15 am and arrived in Rome at 2.35 pm. There was an eruption of cheers by the players as the aircraft took off from the Lagos International Airport runaway. They were relieved that their ordeal was finally over.

“It was an unfortunate incident”, Harold Solomon recalled. “We were going down to have a major tournament in a developing African country and it was a case of bad timing that we were there when they had an unfortunate coup de’tat.”

The Rome WCT tournament was delayed by a day to accommodate the late arrival of the players. Arthur Ashe went on to win this tournament. Pele eventually left Lagos when the Federal Military Government re-opened the borders and airports a few days later. The Brazilian ambassador insisted that he wore an aviator’s uniform to conceal his identity. The greatest danger that Pele faced throughout his time in Lagos was to lose money during games of gin rummy in the Federal Palace hotel.

The WCT informed Arthur Ashe, Jeff Borowiak and Dick Stockton when they got to Rome that they had to honour their Lagos Tennis Classic match commitments. They had to complete the event to ensure that the prize money and Hagger points for the singles tournament were appropriately distributed. The only available opportunity to do this was at the Caracas WCT Open. On April 1, in the middle of the Caracas tournament, Arthur Ashe completed his unfinished semifinal match against Borowiak by beating him. The following day, April 2, he faced Stockton in the final and lost to him. The match was over in less than an hour and it was Stockton’s first-ever victory against Ashe. The score was 6-3, 6-2. The WCT never held another tennis tournament in Nigeria. The Lagos International Airport was renamed ‘Murtala Mohammed International Airport’ a few days after his assassination. Dimka was on the run for three weeks after the coup attempt before his eventual capture on March 5. He was executed on May 15, 1976. There was never an official Government explanation for the military interruption of the Ashe vs Borowiak semi-final match.

This long-form story is based on archival newspaper research, biographical accounts of key characters, US Embassy/State Department cables plus telephone interviews with Tom Okker, Stan Smith, Harold Solomon, Dick Stockton, Bob Lutz, John McDonald, Ismail El Shafei, Paul Svehlik, and Erik Van Dillen.

Written by Olaojo Aiyegbayo

Cite this article as: Teslim Omipidan. (January 27, 2020). The Story of Lagos’ Ill-Fated 1976 Professional Tennis Tournament. OldNaija. Retrieved from

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