Despite some headline-grabbing achievements – GB winning the Davis Cup for the first time in 79 years – and millions of viewers tuned into Wimbledon, which runs until 10th July, tennis is a sport in decline…but that’s not deterring governing bodies from pulling out the stops in a quest to engage new players
The good people charged with developing tennis in Kent have a loud and clear message – they desperately need to attract more young female players.
“I’m organising a tournament at the moment and of 400 young people registered to participate, there are just 18 girls within the junior groups,” says Graham Silvester of the Kent Lawn Tennis Association (Kent LTA).
The news is surprising given moves to shed the sport’s once upper class image. And although still waiting for a breakthrough on the scale of that achieved by the Murray brothers, there are signs – through players such as Eastbourne’s Johanna Konta and Laura Robson – that Great Britain is making ripples, if not yet waves, when it comes to the ladies’ game.
Michael Downey, who heads the Lawn Tennis Association (LTA), is clear about the job in hand.
“We’ve lost 16 per cent of our monthly players in 10 years and the only age group that’s growing is the 44-plus so, not only do we have a sport that’s ageing, we also have a problem attracting young people,” he said recently.
“When I was a teenager, all I did was play sports because there wasn’t much else to do. Now teenagers are all about social media, smartphones and video games.”
One major obstacle according to Michael Downey and echoed by Graham Silvester is a lack of provision.
“We got blips of growth last year when Great Britain won the Davis Cup, then it fell off,” says Michael. “The problem is court provision. If it isn’t good then people won’t come back. We have to invest in that court provision, especially in parks, because that’s where the majority of players are.”
The LTA’s Park Tennis initiatives is exactly designed to tap into that group of potential players by providing access to search-by-postcode opportunities to get involved in the sport on public courts as well as information both for players and those who want to play a role in helping to develop tennis in their local community.
It also runs Tennis Tuesdays which aim to attract female players of all ages by offering sociable sessions focusing on a different aspect of the game each week in which participants can improve ability with skills training from professional coaches.
“Despite the challenges, tennis is in pretty good shape in Kent and we have excellent clubs and generally pretty good facilities,” says Graham, who combines a role overseeing the marketing of the Kent LTA with duties as tournament director and LTA referee.
“We’ve had some notable successes as a country, not just in having the world’s number two ranked men’s singles player and the top doubles player in the men’s game but with some really promising new talent from within the ladies’ ranks. Last year saw a record five British wheelchair players compete at Wimbledon and here in Kent there are a number of juniors making real and exciting progress.
“Great Britain’s Davis Cup victory provided a real boost and the trophy has been touring the country in recent months delivering great opportunities to promote this historic success and to take the sport into communities. Initiatives like this are vital as tennis, unlike football, doesn’t really have the kind of personalities kids idolise and who can be so important in helping inspire young players.”
Courting new talent
There’s no doubting the sport’s desire to up the ante when it comes to engaging new people, especially teenage girls and women. Aside from aforementioned national schemes such as Park Tennis and Tennis Tuesdays, many local clubs are doing their bit.
The Parklangley Club at Beckenham offers tennis for free in local parks in which, for an annual fee of £16, people get a fob that gives them access to courts and an online booking system. As part of its community work, Parklangley maintains the courts, offers coaching and hosts tournaments – and the scheme is open to everyone, not just residents of the Bromley borough.
Tunbridge Wells Tennis Club runs ‘social mix-ins’ three times a week where groups of different sexes, ages and abilities simply turn up and play one short set before changing around. And Cardio Tennis is also proving popular. Offered by many clubs, it’s an introduction to the sport offering the chance to improve co-ordination, lose weight and assist those in rehabilitation, all in a sociable and fun setting.
With another Great British Tennis Weekend looming (16th and 17th July) what advice would Graham give to budding new players and those keen to pick up a racket after a long absence?
“This has really grown as an event since it was launched and there isn’t a better opportunity if you’re thinking about getting into – or returning to – tennis. It can be a daunting sport to take-up but Great British Tennis Weekends give you the opportunity to chat to the right people, maybe have an assessment and decide if it’s for you.
“Many clubs offer specific classes for beginners and this is often a time when you’ll get good offers on membership.”
Great British Tennis Weekend takes place on 16th and 17th July. For further details on it, the work of the Lawn Tennis Federation, Park Tennis and Tennis Tuesdays, visit www.lta.org.uk. The site also provides a link to tennis in Kent with information on coaching, competitions and courses.
- Local clubs include: www.twltc.org; www.sevenoakstennis.co.uk; www.theparklangleyclub.co.uk and www.bromleytenniscentre.co.uk
- Bromley Tennis Centre player Anton Matusevich is the current 14 and under national champion and won the LTA/AEGON Junior Player of the Month award last December after reaching the final of the prestigious Orange Bowl in Miami. Since then Anton has won the 18 and under national grade two event and reached his first International Tennis Federation (ITF) 18 and under final. As the INDEX went to press he was on track to receive a wild card entry into junior Wimbledon.
- Nell Miller, 16, was selected to represent Great Britain at the Winter Cup in Holland this February before reaching an ITF international event final in Austria. She followed this with an amazing 18-match winning streak in which she won three ITF events, two in Sweden and one in Nottingham. Nell, who is now ranked 248 in the 18 and under ITF rankings, plays at Bromley Tennis Centre and Bromley Lawn Tennis Club.