A Master Stroke

He's known to play a mean set himself, but Sir Cliff Richard also puts his energies behind a scheme which encourages children to take up tennis.

Sir Cliff Richard hopes to score a smash hit in future when a British tennis player wins Wimbledon. The pop star tennis fan started his eponymous Tennis Trail in 1992 to rally British hopefuls and spread the love of the sport. Since then, the trail has introduced tennis to 100,000 infant and primary schoolchildren, many in deprived inner-cities or rural areas where resources are spread more thinly.

Sir Cliff first thought of the trail "a long time ago" when he was going out with former British number one, Sue Barker. "We talked about what we could do for British tennis and started to organise pro-celebrity matches 15 to 16 years ago in Brighton."

The Cliff Richard Search for a Star scheme was launched to pick out potential champions, then it was decided that this approach was too elitist and the trail was born. It aims to introduce children to the joys of the game, be they potential champions or enthusiastic amateurs. But Sir Cliff acknow-ledges it would be the "icing on the cake" to look out on Centre Court and see a trail protege.

Trail staff select a school after discussions with the local authority. They are then visited and lesson plans drawn up.

"We go into less privileged areas because that is where the greatest need has been identified," says a spokeswoman.

" We go into schools which have a number of children whose parents cannot afford tennis lessons. . .in leafy shire counties the parents are already going to be giving their children the opportunities. If we had enough resources we would be going into every primary school in the country."

Trail director Sue Mappin, formerly the national women's team manager at the Lawn Tennis Association, says: "We don't want to be a one-day wonder. There's no use going into a school and saying tennis is wonderful if we do nothing more than that.

"There has to be a development programme. We are trying to get more children thinking about the sport."

This year the trail will visit 162 infant or primary schools in 16 towns across England and Wales. Its programme began at Court Lane Infants School in Cosham, Portsmouth, with sessions for 240 five to seven-year-olds.

The team, which included two coaches and a movement co-ordinator, first stimulate the children's interest with a BBC video featuring some of the more light-hearted moments from its Wimbledon coverage. Then pupils are put through their paces in the gym.

Although the aim is to spread the word about tennis, Sue says they are still on the lookout to see if anyone in the group stands out - "it would be stupid for us to ignore an especially rare talent".

The trail has five full-time staff, 10 part-time coaches and five movement specialists. The team talent-spots by looking for good hand-eye co-ordination, movement, balance and rhythm.

The regime has paid off - 20 children who discovered tennis through the trail have reached county standard. "In other countries, especially in Europe, sport is something played out of school - and school often finishes at 2pm," says Sue. "You only have to look at the tennis players in France, Germany, Belgium, Holland and Portugal to realise that we have a lot of catching up to do. "

Talented youngsters are invited to become a "trailblazer"; they receive funding from the Cliff Richard Development Trust to hone their game and their progress is monitored.

The trail is sponsored by Direct Line Insurance which donates Pounds 250, 000 a year. A major moneyspinner for the trust, which became a registered charity in October 1991, is a pro-celebrity event held in Birmingham each winter. In this year's event, showbusiness representatives Jasper Carrott and Joe Pasquale clashed rackets with former British tennis hopes such as Jo Durie and Chris Bailey.

At Court Lane Infants, budding tennis player six-year-old Charlie Ryder-Morgan is enthusiatic about the trail - although he's keeping his options open. He's also a keen football player, but he's not ruling out being the first Cliff Richard protege to step out on to Centre Court.

"I play tennis already. I am going to carry on playing it and do it when I grow up."

There is still a long way to go -funding especially is a limiting factor. National Lottery cash is ruled out as its funds are only available for capital projects.

More than 40 youngsters are currently being funded by the trust, which pays for coaching, facilities and equipment.

The Lawn Tennis Association, which welcomes the trail's work, is currently conducting a major survey to assess the level of tennis provision in schools and local authorities.

Steve Holmes, manager of the LTA information centre, says more than 90 per cent of 16-year-olds are likely to have played tennis at some time in their life - "normally at school".

But he says Britons are "competing better than ever" at junior championship level - James Trotman, 18 and Daniel Sherwood, 16, have just won the Australian Open boys' doubles title.

Gilly Crump, executive director of the British Schools Lawn Tennis Association, says the public perception of the dire state of British tennis is unfair and out-of-date.

"Lots has happened in the last year or so since the Prime Minister launched the Raising the Game initiative."

If she is right, Sir Cliff will get his Wimbledon wish - and he'll have more to sing about when it rains at on Centre Court.

For more information write to Sue Mappin at CRTDT, 94 Hare Lane, Claygate, Esher, Surrey KT10 ORB

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