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Change of game plan from tennis

Shrug off your image of tennis as a game for summer lawns: it's becoming streetwise, writes Roddy Mackenzie

A new concept in tennis is to take to the streets in an effort to shrug off the game's genteel image and make it more appealing to teenagers.

Raw Tennis will be launched in September, but there are already six pilots in Scotland: five in clubs and one at James Gillespie's High in Edinburgh.

The focus is on the core skills of the game, which players can develop on their own, while an interactive website will allow participants to compare their scores with other players throughout the country.

Raw Tennis is split into four disciplines: freestyle, which deals with developing skills of the game; energy, which involves fitness games; slams, which covers matches and competitions; and awards, where participants get recognition for their achievements.

There will even be clothing with slogans to catch the eye of teenagers, such as "Game, Sweat and Match" and "No Time for Love".

Essentially, it is repackaging the game to give it a more dynamic image for teenagers.

There is a high drop-off of players when they reach their teenage years and Raw Tennis will try to combat this.

Mat Hulbert, the director of tennis for Tennis Scotland, says the concept has been extensively researched by the Lawn Tennis Association, which governs the game in Britain.

"Raw Tennis is aimed at 13 to 18-year-olds, which is the age when we tend to lose many players, girls especially," he explains.

"It's basically to give tennis a more streetwise persona. It's made up of quick-fire games and there is a link on the internet where you can record your scores and compare them to other players.

"You log your results under the supervision of a coach. It's done on exercises, as opposed to games, such as how many crosscourt forehands you hit in a row, and the whole thing is designed so that the tests are the same for everyone. You can put in your personal best each time to show you are getting better.

"The LTA has done a lot of research into what sports groups want and this is what they have come up with. It's quite exciting and a lot of money has been invested in it."

In addition to the pilot scheme at James Gillespie's High, there are now schemes at the Meadows City club in Edinburgh, west clubs Helensburgh, Strathgryffe and Prestwick, and Westburn tennis club in Aberdeen.

By September, other clubs and schools will be able to get on to the programme.

Tennis Scotland is also working to attract as much new young blood to the game as it can. At the Scottish Open Championships at Craiglockhart earlier this month, it held a tennis festival aimed at beginners. This has become an annual event and has introduced around 1,000 schoolchildren to the game.

Mr Hulbert believes that even if only 10 per cent go on to pursue their interest by joining a club, the exercise will have been worthwhile.

This is only a tennis taster and not for talent identification, but coaches will follow it up if they see a young player showing potential.

Mr Hulbert is satisfied that Scottish tennis is in its healthiest state for some time. Andrew Murray won the US Junior Open title last year and there are plenty of exciting prospects around.

Murray took the gamble of going to Barcelona to attend a tennis school and finish his final years of schooling, but Mr Hulbert believes Scottish players can still succeed if they choose not to go abroad.

"We now have the infrastructure in place in Scotland," he says.

"The national centre in Stirling is due to be completed in January. There will be two new courts in addition to the existing four.

"We have fantastic links with SportScotland and the Scottish Institute of Sport. We have developed a path which can take a player right the way through from the age of 5 to the top rankings of the ATP or WTA, the governing bodies of the men's and women's professional tennis circuits.

There are identified exit routes along the way so that, if the player does not make a stage, there is still something available for them.

"In a short time the Davis Cup squad could be all Scottish players. Jamie Baker, Andy Murray and David Brewer are all up there," says Mr Hulbert.

"At the moment the emphasis is on getting the development pathway across to everyone so that players, coaches and parents know where they fit into it.

"Everything in tennis comes down to good coaching. Young players need the hunger but I think a lot of that can be instilled by coaching. Your first exposure to a coach is the thing that counts.

"A bad experience can turn you off the sport. We do tend to produce very good technical coaches in Britain, but maybe without the dynamism.

"In Scotland, I think we have a very good coach education system now and all of the coaches know each other, which helps."

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