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Tennis still seeks net gain

Simon Austin | 16:33 UK time, Friday, 16 July 2010

Joseph Hood Recreation Ground, Merton

This is not what I had expected tennis utopia to look like. Grass is growing on the tramlines, the lines are faded and the nets are held up by plastic carrier bags.

But it is not long before I realise why Judy Murray describes this weekly session as the most inspiring thing she has been involved with all year. In a flash, these shabby courts are transformed by dozens of enthusiastic players of all ages, abilities, sizes and colours.

Parents are feeding sponge balls to small children barely able to see over the net, a coach is demonstrating the service action to a group of attentive pupils, while players across the age spectrum are patiently waiting for their turn in a groundstroke drill. Everyone seems to be having fun and enjoying themselves.

sam595.jpgKiladejo reached the final of an LTA junior tournament in Wimbledon and received a trophy from Roger Taylor

The Saturday session I attended has been going since 2005, when it was set up as a pilot scheme by 'Tennis for Free', a charity founded by the comedian Tony Hawks and businessman Cecil Holloway.

The court time, equipment and coaching cost nothing for the participant and anyone is welcome to join in. There are now 15 of these 'Tennis for Free' sites throughout the country, each with its own team of coaches and helpers. Several have been taken over by the local community, including the one in Merton.

Murray, one of Britain's best coaches as well as the mother of world number four Andy, was completely bowled over when she visited the Joseph Hood Recreation Ground on the eve of Wimbledon last month.

"There were about 100 players taking part and it was absolutely fantastic to see so many people playing tennis," she told me.

"What immediately struck me was how welcoming, sociable and fun it all was. Based on what I know of tennis in this country, that's not always the case. The game here is still very middle class and elitist. I loved the fact that parents, grandparents, brothers and sisters were all joining in and helping. I left absolutely uplifted, thinking 'this is exactly what we need throughout the country'."

Murray, 50, believes schemes like this one are key to unearthing the next British star.

"We should be focusing on making the game as appealing to as many people as possible," she said. "If you grow the recreational base for tennis, you start to produce more and more top players. I would love the Tennis Foundation (the charitable arm of the governing body, the Lawn Tennis Association) to get behind 'Tennis for Free' and support it round the country."

Five years after it started and despite glowing testimonies from the likes of Murray, Greg Rusedski, Richard Krajiceck and Pat Cash, it is surprising the 'Tennis for Free' initiative is still not backed by the LTA, although it does allow 'Tennis for Free' coaches to enrol in its own coaching programmes free of charge.

tennisforfree595.jpgUpwards of 100 players sometimes take part in the Tennis for Free sessions at Merton

An LTA spokesman told me the governing body was "in discussions" with 'Tennis for Free' officials about funding a further seven sites but that it was awaiting a "business model" from the charity before proceeding.

Hawks, a successful comedian, best-selling author and now the director and star of two upcoming films, says he is growing tired of the vacillations and mixed messages from the governing body.

The LTA counters criticism by pointing to the numerous Beacon sites dotted around the country that provide "affordable, organised and high quality coaching and competitive opportunities" on public courts and have "free elements". It also invests in parks tennis, in conjunction with local councils, although this does not involve free tennis.

Intrestingly, though, Hawks claimed he phoned every Beacon site a few months ago and insisted none of them was aware of provisions for free tennis.

On the evidence of Merton, 'Tennis for Free' is already unearthing fine talents, just as Murray predicted. Sam Kiladejo, 14, is a good example. He has become a county level player and member of Sutton Tennis Academy since attending a 'Tennis for Free' session.

I first visited the Joseph Hood Recreation Ground in 2005, when 'Tennis for Free' was in its infancy, and was so struck by Kiladejo's talent that I wrote this piece about him. Although he was aged only nine, was small and slight, and had played only a couple of times before, he had balletic footwork and excellent hand-eye co-ordination.

Hawks had spotted Kiladejo playing football a few weeks earlier and asked if he wanted to come to a 'Tennis for Free' session. "I didn't really want to, I didn't think tennis was for me," remembered Kiladejo, "but when I started hitting balls I absolutely loved it."

It was fantastic to see the scheme had the potential to unearth such a talent as Kiladejo but I wondered at the time what he would do when he outgrew 'Tennis for Free'. Would he be able to afford to join a club? And would he want to? After all, quality coaching, which is so important, can cost upwards of £20 per hour.

So when I returned to Merton a couple of weeks ago, I was delighted to discover that Kiladejo was not only still playing tennis but was now very good, boasting a powerful array of topspin groundstrokes, stinging serves and solid volleys.

"I was spotted by Paul Jessop (chief executive of 'Tennis for Free'), who took me to Putney Tennis Club for free lessons," said Kiladejo. "Then I got a tennis scholarship to Cheam High School, which means I get weekly sessions at the Sutton academy."

judy_murray595.jpgJudy Murray says tennis needs to change its "elitist" image

At Sutton, where former British number one Jeremy Bates runs the coaching set-up, Kiladejo gets one-on-one tuition, fitness training and squad work. So far, so good, but there could be a sting in the tale.

The sessions at Sutton cost almost £25 per hour and Sam's father, Ade, has been made redundant. Ade does not want sympathy or expect a free ride but admits it is going to be tough to finance his son's burgeoning tennis career from now on.

The LTA does run a tennis talent identification scheme and provides financial support for its best young players through the Aegon FutureStars programme. However, this funding is only given to the best players in the country in each age group - and Kiladejo is not one of them. Murray says this is a classic chicken and egg situation.

"It is very difficult to become a top player without coaching, yet only the top players get funding," she said. "This is where the governing body has to look because children with potential should not be disadvantaged."

Kiladejo added: "I do worry about how expensive the sessions are but my dad says he wants to do it. I'm determined to do my best for him."

Buoyed by my experiences in Merton, I decided to visit my local courts in Oaken Grove Park, Maidenhead, later that day.

The contrast with the lively session I had witnessed hours earlier could not have been greater. The courts were deserted and the gates were padlocked shut. I must have visited this park every week for the last six years and never seen anyone playing tennis on these courts, which are in far better condition than the ones in Merton.

maidenhead595.jpgThe courts in Maidenhead are locked and players have to book and pay to use them

A notice on the fence informed me that the courts were leased from the council by Maidenhead Tennis Club and that I had to call a number to book the courts. The phone was only manned on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday mornings, though. Not great if the sun is shining one Saturday and you fancy a game.

I did eventually get through and spoke to a very helpful man called Keith, who explained that the courts had to be charged for so they could be maintained. He added that they had to be locked to avoid vandalism.

Jessop, the chief executive of 'Tennis for Free', said there is evidence that locking courts leads to more vandalism because people feel resentful at being excuded.

More worryingly, there are numerous examples of councils turning courts into skateboard parks. The number of park courts in Britain has dwindled from 30,000 to about 10,000.

It means that schemes like 'Tennis for Free' are more vital than ever in unearthing the British star of the future - and tennis fans like Murray will hope the vibrant scenes she witnessed in Merton are not a one-off.

* For up-to-the-minute updates, you can follow me on my Twitter feed


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  • 1. At 5:28pm on 21 Jul 2010, akaTommySmith wrote:

    Can't understand why the LTA doesn't get behind this scheme. Wouldn't cost too much, would it? And would at least be good PR for them.

    Seems a no brainer. And why do they need a business model if it's been running successfully for five yrs and a hundred people attend this one site per week (how many attend the others?)

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  • 2. At 5:47pm on 21 Jul 2010, Kubali wrote:

    I can totally understand why the Maidenhead courts are closed to prevent vadalism - courts I have seen that are not locked, get tatty and are turned into football pitches - not by the council but my the local youth who then wreck the nets in the process.

    'I must have visited this park every week for the last six years and never seen anyone playing tennis on these courts, which are in far better condition than the ones in Merton.'

    There is better condition for a reason! Maybe the council needs to man the courts more often.

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  • 3. At 8:56pm on 21 Jul 2010, supergunner07 wrote:

    LTA = TheFA = national disgrace, full of old elitist administrator that fail year after year in approach to producing quality prospects while lining up their own pockets and pushing out biased in-house review into their own failure.

    It really makes my skin crawl.

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  • 4. At 9:33pm on 21 Jul 2010, danny_1982 wrote:

    I play with my friend every summer on one of a couple of outdoor courts in my area (sutton coldfield) every year.

    Come the winter, we look for indoor courts.... There is 1 place that has indoor courts in a 20 mile radius.

    We are both grown adults, so just play because we love it... But assuming this is the case everywhere (which it clearly is) how on earth are GB supposed to unearth world class players when there is nowhere for kids to play for 7 months a year?

    Can someone explain to me exactly what the LTA do with the tens of millions they get from Wimbledon every year? I don't see any new courts being built anywhere across Birmingham and there seems no urgency to do anything! The only chance kids have is if their parents are loaded and can afford the outrageous prices charged by middle class tennis clubs!

    It's an absolute farce. The LTA are the laughing stock of world tennis.

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  • 5. At 9:34pm on 21 Jul 2010, Harry_Neve wrote:

    I wonder whether Sam's father lives in one of the properties in Merton that were recently taken over by a housing organisation? If so, maybe they could be approached to make a donation towards Sam's lessons, I'm sure they'd want the good press of supporting a promising young sports star.

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  • 6. At 00:43am on 22 Jul 2010, Rohedron wrote:

    its very sad indeed that no matter how blatant the evidence on a recurrent basis that the LTA are an utter failure as an organisation - nothing changes.

    This almost seems their primary (if unvoiced) objective; to ensure nothing changes, while trying to unearth the gem of a player/s that would give them gloating rights for decades.

    I love the fact that Andy M came from outside the system, can barely stand to be asked to speak about the LTA and obv holds them in complete contempt for their mishandling of his brother's talent... alongside their ongoing general incompetence (in terms of organisational talent production).

    I wouldn't want to disservice all of the hard working, committed coaches and trainers out there, but I've experienced 'local club culture' at a few locations and places and found it to be deeply unwelcoming, layered with wealthy, socially stratified micro-minds. Obv - I can't speak for all clubs or for the experinces of others, but it did afford me what I felt was a glimpse into the deep problematic of the sport in this country.. Its infrastructure is rooted in the establishment, who are precisely about the purpose of maintaining the acceptability of a 'face fits' policy which is far more important than fostering, encouraging or finding genuine, breakthrough talent.

    I'd love to be proved wrong, but can't see it happening this side of ever... much love to you tennis fans and players out there though, its an awesome sport...

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  • 7. At 08:34am on 22 Jul 2010, Mr T wrote:

    "said there is evidence that locking courts leads to more vandalism because people feel resentful at being excuded(sic)."

    I'd like to see this evidence. Where I live, actually not far from Maidenhead the delightful local youth torched the clubhouse and regularly destroy the fences, nets and basically anything else they can lay their hands on. Exclusion has nothing to do with it, lack of enforcement does.

    I'd love to see free tennis, but you cannot blame clubs for trying to protect their infrastructure in the face of elements that care nothing for the advancement of the sport.

    If the LTA is really serious about this they would need to commit to replacing / repairing damage done by leaving park courts unlocked. I imagine the unending claims would quickly become unpalatable.

    Also "I must have visited this park every week for the last six years and never seen anyone playing tennis on these courts, which are in far better condition than the ones in Merton."

    May I ask what time? No club would survive for 6 years without an active membership. You don't pass it on your way to work do you? You didn't visit it at a time when God forbid people were actually at work? I've played there a couple of times and there's always been a few people about.....

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  • 8. At 09:12am on 22 Jul 2010, Rob wrote:

    My son was in an academy at the age of 7 at Sutton which I had to pay for but he improved a lot in this time an started playing mini-tournaments. The next term they changed the criteria for the academy and he had to play with 6-year-olds who had never played tennis before. £140 per school term and he was soon disillusioned and did not want to go anymore.

    Millions of £s gained from Wimbledon. Thousands of £s given to the top players but nothing spent on getting young players to push for the top.

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  • 9. At 10:40am on 22 Jul 2010, Rob T wrote:

    Change always needs to come from the top down. Whether that be LTA or the tennis clubs themselves. Most the issue is on club level from my own personal experience. Long story but hopefully will give you an insight from my generation (I'm 25 now).

    I am myself a former so called young prospect, winning adult tournaments when 13 at my club, and then becoming disillusioned.

    Our club had 5 courts. 1 was a junior court - but adult doubles had priority over us still. Later astro turf was introduced to the adult courts only. I also used to get thrown off of adult courts, despite other adult courts being free, because older people wanted to use that specific court!

    In a parallel twist of fate, despite being the champion at my club for 3 years straight in both the mens singles and mixed doubles before I was 16, I was never given the chance to prove myself as part of the club team on a regular basis, the secretary's son being selected despite me proving to be the better player with my 100% win rate in club games.

    I gave up on my tennis for a year before uni citing a lack of club support to my dad. My family was never rich enough to afford any sort of outlay - the £35 per year for my club membership was the most we could afford, and my 5 hour Saturday job paid for my racket/balls/strings/trainers. My biggest regret was not being able to give my parents the pride to see their son play against another club.

    Now I pay for my own membership and still have a high match success rate, but the attitude towards me hasn't changed. I feel I am simply am not liked by the tennis hierarchy because I am not one of "them".

    Perhaps I'm over analysing, but I have always felt some form of ageism, elitism and favouritism always stopped me from becoming better, so please for everyone's sake get rid of the three of them

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  • 10. At 11:02am on 22 Jul 2010, Suntjorge wrote:

    I live in Worcestershire. Having returned to playing tennis after 20 years I'm thoroughly enjoying it and both my boys (age 4 & 9) have taken it up.

    My 9 year old is excellent at sport, blessed with balance and superb hand/eye co-ordination.

    However, for him to progress, private lessons will cost £18 / Hr , and unless we join a bigger (more expensive) club (which I'm warned by everyone is very snooty) he's limited in who he can play against ..

    He was invited to go to some LTA training over a year ago at Malvern, which is a 40 mile round trip, but the session he was offered clashed with his football .. he wasnt asked again.

    Surely the LTA should realise that talented and sporty kids play lots of differnet sports and to put tennis in competition for time with football is really limiting their pool of talent .. why not run late afternoon sessions, rather than mid morning seesions ?

    I have been told that unless he is ear marked by the LTA as having potential and spotted before being 10, he will be ineligible for any future LTA funding support.

    Indoor sessions during the winter a few and far between, and the LTA won't put funds into providing more indoor (or bubble) facilities... where are young kids supposed to play during the Winter ?

    As you've pointed out there are facilities that go largely unused ... it seems that the LTA dont want to really get involved at the basic lower end of the sport, you can see their point I guess as their resources would be spread too thin, but I feel that they're not doing their best to get out to clubs and schools to spot and nurture talent.

    Why are the LTA not providing more coaching sessions in local areas .. why not fund coaches in schools over the summer ?

    This charity sounds like an excellent idea, but it needs to be bigger and more widespread, only the LTA's intervention, and more sponsorship by big business can get this rolling.

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  • 11. At 12:52pm on 22 Jul 2010, kevski wrote:

    It really is staggering how our beloved LTA steadfastly refuse to branch out and look at areas of key growth outside of the leafy suburbs. In Tower Hamlets, one of the largest boroughs in London I don't know of 1 court thats in a suitable state for playing on. Despite this, I managed 2 consecutive summer tennis programmes in 2007/8 for local youth and held a mini tournament with prizes. The sense of competition and the development of skills within ...wait for it.....90% Bangladeshi youths was heartwarming. If I can produce this from nothing then just what the frikkin' hell are the LTA playing at!!
    If anyone still thinks tennis has moved on from its posh, white, elitist roots in this country then just go to Wimbledon and marvel in the diversity of its audience.......not!

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  • 12. At 4:52pm on 23 Jul 2010, mdw wrote:

    It is practically impossible for a junior to start out in tennis in this country. My daughter wants to play tennis but has to travel to neighbouring counties just to get in tournaments.
    She travelled to Florida earlier this year and competed in two tournaments in two weeks - both within 15 minutes drive of where we were staying.
    This is a good example of why we can't produce tennis stars and why the stars we do produce were all trained overseas.

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  • 13. At 8:56pm on 23 Jul 2010, Simon Austin wrote:

    Thanks for your comments everyone - it's quality, not quantity that counts.

    #1 akatommysmith - about 1000 people take part in the 15 tennisforfree schemes each week.

    #2 unounos - they are very good courts in the maidenhead park. But what's the good of that if they're seldom used?

    #7 Mr T - I've visited the courts at weekends and evenings.

    #9 Rob T - good point. I've been a member of tennis clubs as well, and have also frequently seen juniors turfed off by adults. And I agree that teams in clubs are not always picked on merit. Similarly, the stuffy middle-class atmosphere at many clubs puts off new members.

    #10 suntjorge - excellent point. Judy Murray also uses the example of the USA - she says there are loads of junior tournaments there, many in parks, and they are cheap, fun, welcoming and informal. She thinks tournaments here are too expensive and formal.

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  • 14. At 10:58am on 26 Jul 2010, Cantab wrote:

    Until this country can get over some industrial age psyche of class-struggle, tennis can never flourish. go on the streets and ask working class children what they think of tennis (or even education) and you have your problem right there.

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  • 15. At 1:53pm on 06 Aug 2010, spovah wrote:

    Is it not time we started treating this sport like the marginalised sport it really is. I looked at the list of top British players and see: Keothavong, Baltacha, Bogdanovic and thought that we had the same problem as plumbers and were having to recruit abroad......Let it go and focus on something we care about.

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  • 16. At 9:31pm on 07 Aug 2010, patma2003 wrote:

    After growing up playing and coaching in Australia, and playing and coaching abroad - including England - I can sympathise with the purpose of this blog entry.

    While I knew a sport that was accessible to every man and his dog back in Australia, tennis in England and the western isles does seems to be held back by an unwillingness to target - or perhaps even an inability to identify - the key problems that exist. The main problem being access.

    England has plenty of tennis coaches. This I know for a fact. But, what tennis coach worth their weight would work in a good system...? By this I mean, where is the focus in developing Tennis Managers...?

    Tennis Managers. These are the people who drive a club. These are the people who love the game from top to bottom. These are the guys whose passion sees them get turned on by the simple growth and enjoyment of watching people enjoy a sport.

    In fact, these people may even be some of the worst tennis players you are ever likely to see.

    However, this does not mean they love the game any less. Perhaps, I would even say they love the game of tennis even more than some elite level players i watch tossing there racquet on a sunday afternoon.

    These are the people the LTA need to identify. These are the people who will work tirelessly to ensure a) people get to play; b) people have access and c) lasting growth.

    As Rod Laver said at Aussie Open 2009 on his generation. 'Champions come from champion cultures.' You cant just build one.

    Look after the entire population first. Allow absolutely everyone to love the sport first... and then watch what happens. Tennis Managers can allow for this. Having a great man Tennis Coaches is not even half of the battle.

    Identifying potential Tennis Managers who already give much of their time up to the sport with love are the real saviours of the sport in England - especially those not indoctrinated in archaic club protocol. These are the people who will allow for growth. These are the people who breath life into used tennis facilities.

    The systematic identification of potential Tennis Managers and 'EDUCATING' them is the way. They could be anyone.

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  • 18. At 11:05pm on 31 Jan 2011, alihan wrote:

    Wimbledon Tennis club teaches tennis to children from very young age. This very inspiring for a child who might have a Tennis in him.

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  • 19. At 01:23am on 05 Mar 2011, InspireEmpower wrote:

    Although organisations like the LTA and Free Tennis have their flaws, they are still vital to the maturation of our youth. If it wasn't for these types of activities, the opportunities for young people to discover their own talents would be effectively squelched. Interestingly, as I discovered on my [Unsuitable/Broken URL removed by Moderator] ereader yesterday, there are still success stories happening today in addition to that of the young fellow mentioned in this article.

    Nevertheless, we should never discount the hard work good people put forth in maintaining and running these free programmes for the public. Naturally, each of us should do our own part if we want our children to succeed at fine tuning their various talents. That is - taking them to whatever quality community lessons we can find, and encouraging them to participate. Keeping busy with multiple extra-curricular activities has certainly helped me discover my own talents as a child, and programmes such as these, though much in need of improvement, have an optimistic future ahead of them as long as people like us continue to spread the word about their significance.

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  • 20. At 07:59am on 29 Apr 2011, Vang wrote:

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the House Rules.

  • 21. At 09:34am on 30 Apr 2011, john99 wrote:

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the House Rules.

  • 22. At 08:45am on 07 May 2011, Iorlnador wrote:

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the House Rules.

  • 23. At 08:56am on 07 May 2011, Iorlnador wrote:

    "There were about 100 players taking part and it was absolutely fantastic to see so many people playing tennis," she told me.
    got it [Unsuitable/Broken URL removed by Moderator]
    "What immediately struck me was how welcoming, sociable and fun it all was. Based on what I know of tennis in this country, that's not always the case. The game here is still very middle class and elitist. I loved the fact that parents, grandparents, brothers and sisters were all joining in and helping. I left absolutely uplifted, thinking 'this is exactly what we need throughout the country'."

    ya ya i know...

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  • 24. At 7:30pm on 14 Jun 2011, Leroyleroy wrote:

    To be honest, you shouldn't complain. There are places where it's worse and good tennis players still come out from there.


    [Unsuitable/Broken URL removed by Moderator]

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  • 25. At 11:29pm on 21 Jun 2011, U14916049 wrote:

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the House Rules.

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