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Last Updated: Wednesday, 15 December 2004, 13:09 GMT
Taking tennis to the masses
By Simon Austin

Comedian Tony Hawks is famous for the fatuous.

Tony Hawks
Hawks: "Why can't tennis be a working class sport?"
He hitch-hiked round the coast of Ireland with a fridge, beat every member of the Moldovan football team at tennis, and then wrote best-selling books about his experiences.

But he is deadly serious about his latest project, which he says could save British tennis.

Along with businessman Cecil Hollwey, he has set up

The basic idea is for as many as possible of Britain's 33,000 public tennis courts - the largest number in Europe - to be available free of charge to youngsters.

Rackets and balls will be provided and coaches will be on hand to offer technical expertise.

The theory goes that tennis can then start to have a wider appeal and reach a broader spectrum of the population than ever before.

The club system is rooted in the class system
Tony Hawks
Maybe we will even find that elusive Wimbledon champion. It sounds a fantastic idea.

But the Lawn Tennis Association, which runs the game in this country, is yet to be convinced. Hawks' scheme has been up and running for 18 months but the LTA has chosen not to get involved.

"The scheme is going so well we're outstripping our capabilities," Hawks told BBC Sport. "It's ridiculous we're having to do this instead of the people who are responsible for tennis.

"We have more public tennis courts than any other country in Europe and should be aiming to make these facilities the best in the world."

And the key for Hawks is making tennis available to all the nation's youngsters, whether or not they choose to pursue the sport long-term.

The Joseph Recreation Ground in Merton
Hawks is a regular at the Joseph Recreation Ground in Merton
"Until tennis is able to say 'we had Beckham but he chose football', then there is still a lot of work to do," he said.

The LTA remains committed to the club structure.

It has launched a scheme called Club Vision, designed "to provide progressive clubs with greater support and resources... to help them fully play their part in helping to make Britain a great tennis nation".

Yet Hawks says the clubs are a massive obstacle to progress.

"The club system is rooted in the class system," he said.

"It's the clubs that cripple British tennis - and the LTA supports them. It's not club vision, it's no vision."

Tennisforfree is currently operating at three sites. Hawks coaches at one of them, in Merton, London.

He says it could not be more different from a traditional tennis club.

It's an excellent concept and we're very supportive
Matt James,
LTA partnerships manager
"The kids cycle onto the courts, some of them are still wearing their football boots and they often let out loud belches," he said.

"But why can't tennis be a working class sport?"

And he says the LTA spends too much money on elite performance, instead of getting far more kids playing the game. Work on a national tennis centre in Roehampton is currently underway at a cost of 39m.

"The LTA policy is like a ladder with golden rungs at the top and no rungs beneath," said Hawks.

Matt James, partnerships manager at the LTA, said he would be having talks with Hawks next week to decide how they could work together.

"It's an excellent concept and we're very supportive," he said.

James defended the LTA's policies, saying they were trying to make clubs more inclusive.

The all-white kit rule has been removed, along with the "playing-in" policy that required players to reach a certain standard before being allowed to join a club.

James also said the LTA is reaching out to a new generation of tennis players through 25 city centre tennis clubs and the "play tennis" scheme, which allows people to play the game for free.

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