Children taking a lesson at a David Lloyd Club

Eyes On The Ball

20th June 2014

As we approach Wimbledon (23 June to 6 July), the big question is no longer ‘can Murray win?’, but ‘who’s going to be next?’ Heather Harris assesses the state of junior tennis in the UK.

“At least he’s got that monkey off his back” must surely be the cliché most often used by the world’s media when speaking about Andy Murray and the Wimbledon Men’s Single Title.
Never has the expectation of the entire nation rested so emphatically on a single pair of increasingly broad Scottish shoulders (which were, of course, British shoulders when he finally raised the trophy). Frankly, a primate sitting on his back would have been a minor hindrance compared to the desperation for success that oozed from every sunburnt spectator on Murray Mount.

Ironically, Andy is rather lucky that tennis is only really in the public consciousness – and on terrestrial TV – for 14 days a year. Footballers, by contrast, disappear from our screens around mid-May and appear again as early as July – or June, even, if there’s a World Cup and the opportunity to be humiliated in a penalty shoot out. Arguably, ‘England expects’ lies as heavily on the England football team as it did on Mr Murray, but even the most ‘glass half full’ fan would accept that the chance of them repeating 1966 is about as likely as a team full of British players winning the Premiership.

Why is it that in these two sports, which we actually invented, we are no match for the rest of the world? For football we can look to the influx of foreign players keeping our best young English-born players out of the top teams, and thus limiting their experience (that’s got to be a UKIP campaign waiting to happen…) but that can’t apply to tennis, where British success (or lack of it) remains the favourite dinner party topic every Wimbledon. Back page headlines announce the defeat of another ‘promising plucky Brit’, aced off the court by a sinewy foreigner, and, frankly, the tone is a tricky call between patronising and desperate.

Grassroots is always a good place to start when playing the blame game, and Sport England director Paul Smith certainly believes that elite success and grassroots participation are inextricably linked. “British cycling has managed to do both and that tells me it’s possible. I want the Lawn Tennis Association (LTA) to win as much as they possibly can with British players. I want the knock on effect of that to be more people on tennis courts.”

You’ll get that if the courts aren’t overgrown with weeds or had a large Lidl built on top of them or been hidden behind locked gates is my personal (muttered) response – but, on closer inspection, the accusation of lack of facilities can be overruled in true Hawkeye fashion. LTA statistics show that there are 4,118 places to play tennis in England, Scotland and Wales: 21,186 courts and 3,904 registered coaches.

And they are not all in private clubs. On the contrary, according to Tennis For Free which, as its name suggests, campaigns for better access to courts there are 2,594 free public courts. For a country of our size and population this level of facilities is not actually unreasonable. So the debate over why we have fewer players – 66 men and 27 women – in the ATP (Association of Tennis Professionals) and WTA (Women's Tennis Association) rankings than any other leading tennis country rages on in true McEnroesque style.

Washing powder icon and one time Grand Slam finalist (and leader of the plucky Brit brigade) Tim Henman believes that it’s all a numbers game. “If you look at Spain and France,” he says, “the base of their pyramid is vast compared to the British system. There are so many kids playing.”

That opinion was shared by the late Elena Baltacha who, despite her illness, was passionate about promoting junior tennis and opened the Ebat Academy in Ipswich. “The more we get competing, the higher the quality is going to be. Then a filter begins to emerge and the strongest will survive.”

It’s an ethos adopted by David Lloyd Leisure, the UK fitness Club synonymous with the promotion of tennis. As their spokesman, David Bulgin told me, “In the last five years the number of under 11s playing tennis at all our clubs has increased by 5% annually. We don’t just attribute this to the Andy Murray factor but also because we have been concentrating on getting more children playing, not to necessarily find the next champion but to enjoy the game, be active and have fun too.”

He went on to explain that unlike other sports where most boys and girls are happy to take a football to the park, tennis can have the image that you have to be good at it to play it. As a former dumpy child with thick glasses, I can echo these sentiments. It’s certainly what I thought when I was younger.

David Lloyd Leisure tackled this by introducing mini tennis for 3-11s, smaller courts and even smaller equipment, so the sight of a small child struggling to pick up a racquet, let alone hit a ball across a net twice his size, was taken away.

“At the start it’s just all about the kids learning hand/eye coordination by playing ball games on the court before they even start to think about the actual sport,” David said.

The LTA (which has an annual turnover of £60 million) does appear to back this up and has shifted its publicly quoted aim from ‘winning’ to ‘more people playing tennis more often’. Oliver Scadgell, their head of competitions and programmes, said at last year’s Wimbledon, “It’s really important that we have an attractive entry offer so we can bring kids into our sport in a fun and engaging way”.

And if by happy coincidence a naturally talented Murray or Robson appears, they can then by fast tracked onto a programme which will promote these abilities.

Joel Pierleoni

So, problem solved. Just get more children playing tennis and – game, set and match – the LTA will have to build a new trophy cabinet. Except that, as so often happens in life, hard cash makes the appearance of a home grown Pat Cash a real problem, as Hertfordshire talent Joel Pierleoni illustrates. Aged 11, this Berkhamsted youngster has just got his first taste of competing at international level, playing in Paris for Team GB at the age of ten (and his parents weren’t allowed to go and watch him he beat the French no 1). He finished fourth in the UK Nationals and is tipped for future success.

His coach, Tyrell Diaz Stevens, the Elite Tennis Academy director at Berkhamsted Tennis Club, was keen to explain the sacrifices both in terms of time and money that his parents – and all those of top Junior players – have to make.

“As tennis is still not played regularly in schools, the only way talented youngsters get to compete is by travelling the country entering the various junior tournaments. This means weekends away with all the travel and accommodation costs this involves.”

For the young talents themselves – playing an average of 17 hours a week – this means missed parties and time with their friends and for the parents a net loss in terms of financial outlay.

“We are also now reaching the stage where we have to make a decision about Joel’s education,” Joel’s father, Marco, explains. “Do we send him to one of the specialist tennis schools which are costly and involve living away from home, or work with his current school to fit his training and matches around his lessons?” It is at GCSE stage that many Juniors stop playing, he added, as they cannot cope with the pressure of competing both on the court and in the classroom.

Tyrell explains that in other countries, particularly Spain, the education system is better set up to encourage and promote young talent. “[They] are much tougher on young players and expect them to decide at a very early age if they are going to concentrate on tennis as their sole sport, where we are happy even at Joel’s age to let him still play football and rugby too. Not until he starts to play at Under 14 level do we really demand total commitment.”

Pat Cash, writing in the Sunday Times, makes the same point. “The young Spanish players are tough because they are brought up the hard way and thrust into solid competition against senior male players at a very early age. It’s a case of sink or swim and those who are good enough keep afloat and flourish.”

But, as we all know, such a cut throat approach is terribly unBritish. As a nation, we do tend to a ‘love all’ attitude to life. Witness the criticism faced by Andy Murray when he failed to appear in person to collect his BBC Personality of the Year Award (an amazing accolade for a man who was always told he didn’t possess one). The public were horrified; those in the know could see where he was coming from. Or not coming from.

“As fellow professionals we respected that it was vital he stayed in Florida to prepare for the Open but the British public saw it as arrogant. Ironically, it is this single-mindedness and arrogance that makes him a match winner!” said Tyrell, adding that Joel is one of the few youngsters in his 30 strong Academy team that does have this steely determination even at his young age.

We can only hope that this drive to win continues – or can we? Meeting Joel and his parents, seeing how much he loves his sport, seeing the challenges he’s already facing, does make you wonder whether the huge sacrifices needed to be top in this uniquely mentally and physically demanding sport are worth it. Should the aim of the LTA to get ‘more people on tennis courts’ be a goal in itself, or must it be the cover for getting more British names on that Wimbledon trophy?

Joel loves it now – but can he carry on loving it when all that expectation is headed his way? And, to all those who demand more national success, would you want your child to be under that pressure? It’s well-known, for example, that Andy Murray left Scotland at 15 to train and study in Spain and that the experience brought his game on tremendously; less well-known is the fact that his brother Jamie had gone to study full-time at the LTA academy in Cambridge at the age of 12, and that he – and his singles game – fell apart.

Perhaps we should just accept that Andy Murray is a one off. Us Brits are not wired to win except in sports that involve a nice sit down – cycling, horse riding and rowing. When it comes to tennis you need far too many balls to succeed.

Starting young:

Laura Robson, who has been playing since she could barely hold a racquet, is seen here earlier this month with seven-year-old Kayaan Chander, from Northwood. Kayaan was one of just 40 youngsters aged between five and eight (out of a starting group of over 900) who made it to the final of ‘Active Aces’, part of Virgin Active’s nationwide search for Britains top young tennis talent.

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