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Back to the baseline to serve top tennis

Scotland has the talent; it is up to clubs to coach players to stardom, reports Roddy Mackenzie.

Seldom has Scotland been better off for young tennis players in terms of talent, but there are still some doors that are not open when it comes to finding a place to play. Now, by laying that responsibility on clubs, the Scottish Lawn Tennis Association (SLTA) hopes to make the grass-roots of the game flourish.

Matthew Hulbert, the new director of tennis for the SLTA, knows that attitudes have to change if the game is to reap the benefits of the potential of the young players. Hulbert spent eight years working in South Africa where, he says, it was through the clubs that the best young players blossomed.

Mr Hulbert is giving his backing to a pound;10 million strategy for funding sports clubs by the Lawn Tennis Association, based in London. "This strategy will put more responsibility on the development of the game through the clubs," he says.

"The days of the stuffy tennis club are numbered. The only way they will get access to funding is by falling into line.

"Many people simply can't afford to play in clubs and it's all very well inviting youngsters to come in and play tennis for a day, but six months down the line 80 per cent of those kids will have found something else to do.

"They must get the game to a wider audience and part of that will be to go into schools and get young players along to the clubs."

There are 200 tennis clubs in Scotland and 23,000 registered players, but the SLTA does not keep records on how many are school-aged. However, Mr Hulbert believes that there is no shortage of young talent in Scotland, pointing to Glasgow's Nicola Allan, who won the national under-13 girls' title, and David Brewer, also from Glasgow, who won the boys' under-15 national title in Bournemouth last month, beating the best young English players.

Last month Scotland won a silver medal at the Millennium Youth Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh, where Elena Baltacha, Mhairi Brown and Karen Paterson put out top seeds from Australia, who included three of the world's top juniors. Paisley's Alan Mackin won his way into Britain's Davis Cup team this year and is currently based in Monte Carlo. Also, Andrew and Jamie Murray from Dunblane and Frances Hendry from Linlithgow regularly beat the best English players.

"There is undoubtedly a lot of talentin Scotland, but the one thing I have noticed since I took over as director in April is that there is a shortage of good quality coaches," Mr Hulbert continues.

"I feel we have to raise the profile of the coaches in this country. If you look at golf clubs, the most important person is the golf professional. Why should a tennis coach not be similarly looked at in a tennis club?

"We have to look at the situation and maybe schools and clubs will have to pay a retainer to keep coaches on. To get the right quality of coaches in Scotland, we have to pay the right money."

The SLTA will appoint a new national coach shortly and it will be a high-profile position in the mould of Patrice Hagelauer, the LTA's current performance director.

Mr Hulbert believes that Scotland has facilities that will help to stop the best young players automatically migrating to England. There are five purpose-built indoor tennis centres and a number of private health clubs, such as David Lloyd and Next Generation, which provide first-class facilities. There are also plans for a new national centre to be built at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, which should be ready by the end of next year and will have six indoor clay courts.

"The reason we have so many good young players now is because the facilities have improved in the past 10 years," says Mr Hulbert. "Scottish players are highly committed: they have to be to train during the hard winters, but now they have indoor facilities to practise in."

Mr Hulbert is aware that tennis in schools has been almost the exclusive domain of independent schools due to a lack of facilities in the state sector, but he believes that is changing. "We now have the community tennis partnership, which involves clubs, schools and local authorities. It's part-funded by the LTA and enables schools to use club facilities where practicable. We also have four county development officers who spend a lot of time in schools and it is a case of widening the base of the pyramid.

"We should now have a structure in place where the best young players can reach their potential as we also have three performance coaches at the SLTA who are concerned with the elite players.

"But we have to make sure that we continue to produce players. The more we have at the base of the pyramid, the more chance we have of getting players to the top."

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