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Page last updated at 09:47 GMT, Wednesday, 9 July 2008 10:47 UK

Is the LTA ignoring the grass roots?

By Alistair Magowan

Laura Robson
Robson's success has proven that the LTA system can work, but is it enough?
Laura Robson's success in winning the girls' Wimbledon title gave British tennis a smooth exit route from a tournament which showed real promise.

Andy Murray reached his first Grand Slam quarter-final, top British woman Anne Keothavong qualified outright for the Championships, and 14-year-old Robson left the press pining for more.

A sound platform on which to inspire players at grass roots level, you would think.

But the Lawn Tennis Association has decided not to use these relative achievements to run a big campaign to get youngsters playing this year.

The governing body's reasoning is that rather than launch a scheme along the lines of recent examples such as Play Tennis or Raw Tennis, spending more money on access to courts and coaching offers better value for money.

It is all part of plan called a "Blueprint for British Tennis" launched last year, which was the brainchild of LTA chief executive Roger Draper.

Alistair M - BBC Sport

The document aims to "get British tennis winning" by getting the best coaches and facilities to the best players while establishing a structure where juniors can flourish.

Yet there are some who question whether a number of decisions taken to boost tennis-playing numbers are actually achieving anything.

Tony Hawks, the comedian and co-founder of the Tennis for Free charity, has long campaigned for free tennis courts in parks and has discussed how to take his proposal forward with the LTA. But he is worried that Draper has spent too much money at the elite end at the expense of making tennis more affordable.

And with figures published last week showing that only 5% of 11-19 year olds play tennis on a weekly basis, down from 12% in 1998, he has questioned what Draper can show as evidence for his two-and-a-half years in charge.

"I think that getting people playing tennis in parks is the most important issue for British tennis," Hawks told BBC Sport.

2---------Top 100 players------24
2,600----Affiliated Clubs----9,000
1m------People playing*-----2.5m
10,000----Public courts----17,000
*regularly or occasionally

"I think it's way more important than hiring a coach [Brad Gilbert] for Andy Murray. You don't need to spend any time with him. He's a motivated young man who's proven that by his very behaviour. He sacked the coach they hired for him.

"Most of the money the LTA gets its hands on comes from Wimbledon (25m last year), based on the fact that the British public adores watching it on TV and they like going there.

"It's TV which generates all the money. The British public don't see any of it really - it goes to a really small bunch of people."

Hawks' frustration comes at a time when the number of public courts in Britain has been on a similar slide to the numbers playing.

Three years ago there were 33,000 but that figure has now dropped to an estimated 10,000 thanks to councils deciding either a car park or a basketball court, for example, gets more use.

Of these, about 2,700 are free but Hawks claims the LTA has dragged its feet in putting pressure on more councils to do the same.

"I had assurances from Draper that during the second week of Wimbledon we were going to run a big campaign about free tennis in parks," he said.

"I had assurances from him way back earlier in the year when we met with the sports minister and these assurances have not been followed through."

Andy Murray
The LTA has done away with recruitment campaigns like Raw Tennis

Draper was unavailable to discuss the matter.

Hawks also claims the issue is not helped by the LTA's decision to devolve responsibility for what it calls "community tennis" to the Tennis Foundation, which now oversees all tennis charities including his venture.

Sue Mappin, the executive director of the Tennis Foundation, told BBC Sport: "I can understand Tony's frustration but the area of parks tennis is one part of a four-prong strand.

"Tony is passionate about tennis and we want to use him, but in order for us to get into more councils and get them to offer more free courts we have to have a planned strategy that is ongoing."

Mappin claims that over three million people play tennis in parks during Wimbledon "but two million of them do not play again for the rest of the year.

"I think we can make all 10,000 courts free but it will take everybody very much working together," she added. "We hope that next year we will have 30% more free courts, 60% the following year and 100% free in three years' time.

"People talk about the LTA producing players but they don't produce players - they are the governing body. The US Tennis Association have never produced players, the French Tennis Federation as well, but they both have the structure for that to happen."

That statement may contradict Draper's recruitment of some of the best tennis coaches in the world, but Mappin's plan to set up an infrastructure similar to that of France is a huge ask.

She aims to coordinate tennis in parks, schools, universities and colleges for youngsters, adults and those with disabilities.

1.5m pupils playing tennis
All 10,000 public courts free
Rules on 1350 public courts
225 Beacon Sites in Local Authorities
20 Hot Spots

As well as free access Mappin wants courts to carry signs giving players tips to help improve their knowledge of the game, and she also wants every primary school child to have tried tennis.

There are also plans to have "beacon sites" in every one of the 442 local authorities with 225 targeted in the next three years. Add to that 20 "hot spots" across the country acting as a central delivery point for tennis coaching and it is a mammoth task.

Yet among all these targets, the story of 10-year-old Alex Juniper highlights the more immediate issues that Mappin and Draper have to tackle.

Alex started playing when he saw a Tennis for Free site about three years ago when his mum, Sally, took him to a session in Kent. He has since gone on to play for his county but Sally says that the cost makes it tough for her to support him.

"There's no doubt about it, tennis can be quite expensive so the fact that it was free was definitely an incentive to start," she said.

"It's more expensive to play than other sports certainly, if you want an indoor court you're talking about 15-20 pounds an hour for a coaching session.

"We worked it out that it has cost us about 4,000 in the last year. We're not fortunate enough to be in a position to find the money easily but we do it because we want to give him the opportunity but I know there are a lot of parents out there who can't afford it. That's where I think the game lets itself down."

Alex Juniper
Alex Juniper, 10, took up tennis through access to a free court

The Tennis Foundation will look to finally address an issue which rears its head after Wimbledon each year.

But Hawks, who is aiming to add one million signatures to his online petition, thinks there is no time to waste in widening the pool of players that the LTA can send on its route to potential stardom.

"In Bishops Park in Fulham, west London, there are about 14 or 15 courts but they cost 7.80 an hour," he said. "They are packed during Wimbledon fortnight and everybody is someone who works in the city because they phone up and book.

"There are council flats all around those courts and none of the kids around there can get on them at the very time when you could be building their enthusiasm for the sport.

"In this country we allow councils to see tennis courts as a way of generating revenue. I've already paid my council tax so you cannot call that anything other than a tax on tennis. The government wants us to exercise more so they don't want that, nobody wants that.

"The only reason this has not been overturned a year and a half ago is because Roger Draper has concentrated all his time and skills at the top end, and not in coordinating the bottom rung of British tennis where he is most needed right now.

"There's nowhere near enough resources going into this. I can't believe that an argument that was won two-and-half years ago is still going on. Clearly there must be some benefit from getting more people from all sorts of backgrounds playing and enjoying the game."

But Mappin added: "Roger Draper is very committed, very passionate and very ambitious for the sport and I think he has got people thinking in a much more positive way. I think now that the timing is right."

see also
Briton Robson wins girls' title
05 Jul 08 |  Tennis
Find your nearest tennis court
12 Sep 05 |  Get Involved
Own goal by British tennis?
17 Jun 05 |  Tennis
Taking tennis to the masses
15 Dec 04 |  Tennis

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