Tennis still seeks net gain
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.
Kiladejo reached the final of an LTA junior tournament in Wimbledon and received a trophy from Roger Taylor
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.
Upwards 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 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.
The 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.
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