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Last Updated: Friday, 17 June, 2005, 11:42 GMT 12:42 UK
Own goal by British tennis?
By Simon Austin

Tennis For Free banner
The scheme has run since 2003 - without LTA funding
Sam Kiladejo is nine-years-old and has only played tennis five or six times.

But already he's able to rally from the baseline with teenagers and is improving rapidly each time he plays.

If it was not for Tennis For Free - a scheme that enables youngsters to play on park courts and receive coaching once a week free of charge - Sam would almost certainly never have played tennis.

He spotted a 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. Soon he was hooked.

This is just the sort of scheme you would think the Lawn Tennis Association - the governing body of the sport in the UK - would enthusiastically endorse. A scheme that gets talented young sportsmen like Sam from inner-city areas involved in tennis.

But that's not the case.

LTA spokesman Kris Dent says the organisation had offered Tennis For Free co-founder Tony Hawks almost 100,000 in funding for the scheme with "no strings attached".

WHAT THEY SAY ABOUT TENNIS FOR FREE
I think it's a brilliant initiative - we need a combination of backgrounds playing tennis in this country
Greg Rusedski

I think it's absolutely first rate - it's entirely what British tennis needs
John Barrett

The offer for the scheme was declined, but the money is on the table and we'll keep it there
Kris Dent, LTA
"The offer was declined, but we have put the money on the table and will keep it there," he said.

But Hawks - who is a best-selling author and comedian - says the amount was half that, and it was offered on the condition it was to be spent only on coaching.

As funding for coaching had already being supplied by the Foundation for Sport and the Arts, Hawks had to decline the LTA's offer.

This is starkly at odds with the situation in the USA, where the United States Tennis Association revealed on Friday that it is to invest $1.5m in parks tennis.

Venus and Serena Williams famously learnt to play the game on park courts in Compton, Los Angeles.

Britain has 33,000 public courts - the most of any country in Europe.

Yet many of them are in a very poor state and are hardly ever used.

Greg Rusedski enthusiastically endorsed Tennis For Free when BBC Sport recently spoke to him.

"I think it's a brilliant initiative - it gets the kids out and gives them the experience of tennis," he said.

"Anything like that is good. We need a combination of backgrounds playing tennis in this country.

Group taking part in a Tennis for Free session in Merton
"Look at the example of the US. Venus and Serena Williams are from one of the toughest areas of Los Angeles, yet John McEnroe is from a very affluent background - both of his parents were lawyers."

Veteran BBC commentator John Barrett - who played Davis Cup for Britain and is a highly-respected tennis coach and administrator - has attended a Tennis For Free session and is a big supporter of the scheme.

He says it is a shame the LTA did not come up with the idea - and that this could be part of the reason why they are not more firmly behind it.

"I think it's an absolutely first-rate scheme - it's entirely what British tennis needs," he said.

"The great pity is that it's taken someone like Tony to begin this initiative.

"We need to get children out there on the courts and playing tennis.

"I remember 30 years ago I was coaching in Wandsworth and saw one boy who was fantastically talented.

"I said that if he was given one-to-one coaching he could go on to have a very bright future in the game.

"A week later he'd signed with West Ham. The battle for tennis is to attract the best athletes and keep them.

"Unfortunately, tennis in this country is still a minority sport."

The LTA does run a City Tennis scheme, which operates in deprived communities throughout the country.

Children can borrow rackets and balls and play on a "pay-as-you-play" basis from as little as 1 a session.

They can also have subsidised coaching and the schemes in Hackney and Westway have applied for "performance funding", so their most talented players can be developed.

But the scheme is not absolutely free. And nor is it using the thousands of park courts around the country.

Soon the question for Sam will be "Where do I go from here?"

If he is to progress he will need individual coaching and practise with better players.

He could join an LTA-affiliated club, but that could be quite expensive and might not include many people from his background.

Or he could join one of the LTA's Mini Tennis Clubs, playing with plastic rackets and sponge balls, but that would be a backward step.

And with choices as limited as that, he could instead - like the child Barrett remembers 30 years ago - soon be back playing football.




SEE ALSO
Taking tennis to the masses
15 Dec 04 |  Tennis


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