The White Stuff: Tennis for all the way for elite player production

editorial image

Last weekend, the Lawn Tennis Association promoted its first Great British Tennis weekend across the nation.

Hundreds of open days are taking place across the country to inspire people to dust off their racquets, or even pick up one for the very first time. Four weekends will run before July, with over 1,500 park sites and clubs running sessions.

Finally, it looks like the LTA have worked out that mass participation at all levels is the root to producing a string of elite players.

The change of emphasis to grassroots level, instigated by new LTA chief Michael Downey, is opening up the game which is often considered “elitist”.

Gone are the days of paying more than £500,000 a year for Brad Gilbert to coach British number two, and perennial Wimbledon flop, Alex Bogdanovic.

While leaving the “attitudes of British players” debate to one side, clubs must adopt an open door policy and make playing readily available for everyone.

And, outside of club tennis, I fully support the Tennis for Free campaign, which calls for better access to tennis facilities,.

Why should amateur players have to become a member at a club, paying more than £100 a year, or even £5 a time for a game.

In France, villages and towns are brimming with tennis courts, According to Tennis for Free there were 2,594 free public courts and 16 free park coaching programmes in the United Kingdom. France has three times the number of clubs and 11,000 more courts.

Last year, France could lay claim to 132 ATP and 58 WTA ranked players, with 19 men and 11 women in the top 200.

With 66 men and 27 women, Britain had less than any other leading country.

Next week, I am heading to the French Open to watch the opening two rounds, and I fully expect to see several French tennis players progressing. In three years touring the courts of Wimbledon with my ground pass, British flag and occasional glass of Pimms, I have only seen one British player win.

Maybe, I’ve picked the wrong places to be, and, in the late Elena Baltacha and young stars Laura Robson and Heather Watson, there have been successes to cheer in recent years.

Little needs to be said about Andy Murray’s impact but Dan Evans and James Ward’s rise up the rankings, and GB’s recent Davis Cup run also show results are heading in the right direction. But we are still well behind.

I know it’s not a new argument. But, given that we are still grumbling about it, the problems have not been resolved, even with the end to the 77-year wait for a men’s Wimbledon champion.

It was interesting chatting to Wetherby coach Angela Crossley last week, after she picked up the LTA National Club Coach award for 2014.

She said, opening the doors to clubs and schools in the Wetherby and Boston Spa area, has seen participation rise by more than 200 players. In total, Crossley and her team coach more than 450 people.

She hosted events at the weekend, and had 30 players at Wetherby Castlegarth Tennis Club on Saturday, and 20 more at Boston Spa Tennis Club on Sunday.

It shows there is a demand for greater accessibility to courts and if LTA money is spent wisely, hopefully in ten years time, this

I’ve seen, and experienced, how off-putting a closed-door club focused primarily on its teams can be.

I’m glad the LTA is finally trying to change that.