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Can tennis be made less middle class?

Wimbledon centre court

By Vanessa Barford
BBC News Magazine

Andy Murray is beginning his tilt at the US Open, but Britain is still struggling to produce tennis stars, and some feel participation in the sport is hindered by its middle class image. The Lawn Tennis Association's charitable arm has hired celebrity PR magnate Max Clifford to help change that image. But can investment in tennis work - or is a bigger psychological barrier at play?

As the sunlight falls on rows of panama hats, chino-clad, champagne-sipping suburbia settles into the front seats at Wimbledon.

In the Royal box, the great and the good sit alongside film stars and newsreaders.

The scene sits happily alongside Ascot, Kew Gardens and Glyndebourne. It is all rather reserved, and distinctly representative of middle-class Britain.

Tony Hawks
Overcoming the perception of tennis as a snotty game is an uphill struggle
Tony Hawks
Co-founder of Tennis For Free

It is fitting for a game that boasts royal ancestry - having been created from real tennis in the late 19th Century. Most great British hopes - from Virginia Wade and Annabel Croft to Fred Perry and Tim Henman - have been bred from affluent stock.

But now tennis is looking to alter its image. Max Clifford, who plays tennis two or three times a week, is expected to use his considerable media pull to raise the profile of tennis.

"I don't think there is a psychological barrier to tennis," says Mr Clifford.

But is he right - or is tennis too much of a traditionally middle-class game to ever truly change?

Positive spin

The figures suggest tennis is in a state of decline. While 12% of 11-19 year olds played tennis on a weekly basis in 1998, that figure has now slumped to 5%, according a survey by the British Market Research Bureau.

And although there are currently 10,000 park courts in the UK, the Tennis Foundation says there were about 33,000 three years ago. Many councils seem to have decided that either a car park or a basketball court, for example, would get more use.

Sue Mappin, executive director of The Tennis Foundation, is hoping to buck the trend. She says Mr Clifford has been brought on board as part of a bigger campaign - which will cost about 5m a year, depending on the contribution from the LTA and Sport England.

London mayor Boris Johnson sits in the Royal Box
Boris Johnson would be delighted by a British champion in 2012

"It is part of a three-year strategy to broaden the base of community and school tennis," she says.

Plans include providing equipment, coaching and resources to primary and secondary schools and creating 20 "beacon sites" - which would act as hotspots or examples of excellence within every authority - for both adults and children by 2010.

The Tennis Foundation is also working with charity Tennis For Free to make all park courts free - currently only 2,800 are.

"Anybody from eight to 80 can play tennis - it is safe, social and a low impact sport," says Ms Mappin. "We want these parks to open up, to be a place to hang out and to do homework, like some places in America."

Of course the US success story is the Williams sisters, who famously learned to play the game on park courts in Compton, one of the toughest areas of Los Angeles.

'Uphill struggle'

But will these initiatives to entice more people to play tennis succeed where so many other steps have stalled?

Tony Hawks, the comedian and co-founder of Tennis for Free, is convinced free courts will make a big difference to British tennis - citing the government's 140m spending on free swimming pools as testimony to the fact that investment is available - but says "overcoming the perception of tennis as a snotty game is an uphill struggle".

He thinks one of the problems with previous LTA initiatives is they have focused on club changes - such as relaxing rules on tennis whites - but people are put off clubs because they find them "expensive, stuffy and socially cliquey".

Max Clifford
Years ago, hardly anyone sang... then Simon Cowell did Pop Idol
Max Clifford

And he says when the LTA has taken tennis to inner cities it has not spoken their language - but appealed to the converted.

"They charged 1 for lessons between 10-12am, but you cannot apply the disciplined 10am rule - maybe down the road when they are into it, but not at the beginning. Instead of enticing people from tougher backgrounds to start playing, the middle classes from further afield rocked up in Range Rovers to take advantage of the scheme."

He also wants the LTA to be more open-minded about coaches.

"The LTA allows coaches with certain qualifications to teach, but PE teachers would be fine - so long as they can engage with big groups of people and be a bit of a performer," he says.

Hunger to succeed

But even if more players do start playing tennis, will the LTA breed a Brit capable of getting their hands on the top trophy?

The world's top 100 is full of players from eastern Europe and other developing countries who have climbed to the top through their sheer hunger to succeed - whereas the last British man to lift the All England Club crown was Fred Perry in 1936.

Mr Hawks thinks part of the problem is that life is too comfortable for middle-class players with options at their disposal, so frequently deflect to a plan B "such as finishing their law degree" when tennis gets tough.

He says the game becomes "a bit of a scrap" and "gladiatorial" at the top and wants the LTA - which benefits from a 25m plus annual injection from the profits of Wimbledon - to invest its money differently.

David Beckham
Football is the nation's dominant sport in many ways

"Brad Gilbert was allegedly paid about 800,000 by the LTA to coach Andy Murray - we should stop spending on the elite and spend on the rest of society," he says.

He wants to produce more success stories like Sam Kiladejo, who spotted a Tennis For Free session taking place on public courts in Merton one Saturday morning while he was playing football and, still wearing his football kit, went over and joined in.

"I did it just for fun, because it was something to do after football. I didn't know how to play," says Sam.

He had a natural talent and was soon hooked. Now he has won a tennis scholarship to a secondary school.

But although Sam would love to win Wimbledon and idolises Roger Federer - who along with Rafael Nadal considered becoming a professional footballer before he settled on tennis - he is yet to decide which sport to pursue professionally.

Ms Mappin recognises the attraction of football - which is entrenched in Britain's culture - among children, and hopes to work with the Football Foundation to create sporting hubs.

Revolutionary plans

Sue Mappin says the new long-term strategy is different to other initiatives.

"Everyone has to sign up to, be it the LTA, the education sector, Youth Sports Trust, Sport England, local authorities and coaches. Without everyone doing so, we will not succeed in broadening the base of the game and allowing talent to move up the pathway easily to the High Performance level," she says.

And Mr Clifford hints at more revolutionary plans to get people involved.

"Years ago, hardly anyone sang. Then Simon Cowell did Pop Idol."

So might a Tennis Idol be on the horizon? "Who knows," he says, "we have only just begun to scratch the surface."

As for Wimbledon - Mr Hawks thinks a revolution is less likely because people are happy to see it as a celebration of the British middle classes.

"Wimbledon is Wimbledon," says Sue Mappin, with a note of resignation in her voice. "It is very successful, and it would take an awful lot to change.

"But if they had a children's day - like they do in the Roland Garros [French Open] - that would help. But in France, the majority of the crowd are tennis players. At Wimbledon, the spectators see Wimbledon as part of their 'summer season'."


Below is a selection of your comments.

Class is an obvious issue. But linked to class is cost---rackets, balls, trainers, court bookings and other kit. And you can't just start a game anywhere, like football. What can we learn from the French? They had the same class issue 30\40 plus years ago but invested heavily in it at all levels, inspired by De Gaulle who wanted a fitter French nation. Every village has its village owned courts, and the annual tournament has at least one relatively star person playing, to set standards. The French now do very well in tennis internationally. Perhaps our tennis leadership still retains the old British middle class antipathy to the French??
Mark Sinclair, London, UK

Part of the problem must be the very small number of tennis players who make big money at the top. Compare the vast numbers of footballers who can make an excellent living at their sport with the number of tennis players. The pyramid is very steep. Another reason is the difficulty of the game. It takes roughly five years of concerted practice to make county level. That is a very long time frame for most juniors.
James, Cambridge, UK

My school had only one tarmacked tennis court - it was never used because PE classes never had fewer than 30 pupils. Thus we did team sports like hockey, football, rugby - not individual sports like tennis. There was a tennis club in the next town - but none of us could afford the membership fees and court fees. So none of us got to play.
L Smith, Edinburgh, Scotland

This summer my son and his friends regularly turned up to use the empty courts at our local park during the day, only to be told by the jobsworths from the local club that they had to pay 3 each. Result - no tennis played, empty courts and some very annoyed kids. It would be reasonable if the money went to sports development or they could book the court, but it just goes straight into the accounts of the local club which is almost exclusively middle-aged and middle class players.
Mark Strong, Brighton, UK

And what is so wrong with tennis being middle class? OK make it as accessible as possible to kids of all backgrounds but why the incessant need in this country to dumb everything down all the time? We should be celebrating the unique heritage of the sport not be embarrassed by its middle class background.
Robin Woolnough, London

Only in Britain do we talk of sports in terms of which class it fits into. This is absurd and perpetrated by those unprepared to become sports mobile. It's a great game and shouldn't be restricted. If Lewis Hamilton can succeed in F1 then anyone can aspire to tennis.
Alistair Walker, Zurich, Switzerland

Why are we constantly being asked to despise the middle classes?
Daniel, Birmingham, UK

Can tennis be made less middle class? Can the British ever stop banging on about class? If Britain can't produce any champion tennis players it has nothing to do with their station in life. Tim Henman is middle-class. If kids had compulsory sports every day as they did when I was at school, then everyone would start learning tennis at an early age, along with several other sports, and would not have to "come across it" by accident like Sam. And they'd be a lot healthier - and thinner. And do you really want the Centre Court to be invaded by beer-swilling louts ready to start a battle if their preferred player loses?
J Kelley, Brussels, Belgium


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