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Pounds 25m to find tomorrow's champions

Diane Spencer reports on how Britain's number one tennis hope is encouraging future potential stars

Tim Henman, Britain's number-one tennis player, has launched a new initiative to improve Britain's record in producing world-class players and to open up opportunities for schoolchildren.

The Lawn Tennis Association's Pounds 3 million coaching programme aims to reach thousands of children during the next three years with 250 schools already forging links with clubs - an essential part of the scheme.

Henman, who began playing at his prep school, put a group of Islington Green pupils through their paces last week. They were training on the asphalt courts of their inner-city north London site rather than in a leafy suburban location, since the association is trying to shed its middle-class image.

"You don't need to spend a fortune for your first racquet, to join a club or take a lesson," said Alan Weatherseed, the LTA's county development manager.

With Midland Bank sponsorship of Pounds 400,000 a year for three years, the LTA will spend a total of Pounds 25 million on a five-year development programme. The government-funded Sportsmatch scheme, which matches business sponsorship for grass-roots sport, has added its maximum grant of Pounds 50,000 to the initiative.

The coaching programme is part of Top Sport, a nationwide strategy run by the Youth Sport Trust, to promote wider participation in all kinds of sporting activities, starting with those in schools.

Islington Green school has no playing field, but Cora Edwards, head of physical education, said that the school was the only one in the borough to have tennis on the timetable, to run an after-school club, and to take part in the Midland Bank school league competition. Two boys have already reached county standard.

For these reasons it was chosen as one of six schools around the country to host the launch of the LTA's coaching programme. In all, 257 schools have been targeted by the LTA's county development officers to start the three-year project, described by Phil Vesey, the LTA's education development officer, as "not a quick fix".

Schools are offered a basic equipment bag of Pounds 300-worth of short tennis nets and markers, a variety of balls from soft to match standard, and a selection of racquets. They get 30 hours of free coaching a year and teachers get a step-by-step planning kit for their pupils to "leap from school to centre court".

Mr Vesey said the essential part of the scheme was "to marry schools to local clubs where possible - it might take a bit longer to persuade clubs to get involved".

He said that some clubs were known for their reluctance to welcome juniors, but that "we must be patient with them". He said: "We'll say 'we're ready for you, are you prepared to take them?' I'm sure they'll see the value of recruiting potential life-long members. But if no local club is available, then the LTA would encourage schools to start one."

Ms Edwards said her school had links with Islington's Indoor Tennis Centre and students played at Haringey Tennis Club. "We get 10 tickets a year to Wimbledon," she said. "It's important for them to see top-class players as it increases their motivation."

Tim Henman, who began his career at The Dragon School, an Oxford prep school, before a David Lloyd tennis scholarship took him to Reed's School, Cobham, Surrey, was delighted with the new programme. He said that it provided the money and a structure to make things better.

"Facilities in Britain are as good as anywhere in Europe, if not the world, compared with 10 years ago when we were lagging badly behind," he told The TES.

"I was lucky, as tennis was not so easily accessible then. This an opportunity to get involved at a young age. I would say to these students, go for it - I've had a great deal of enjoyment from the game. It's always been my hobby; now it's my profession."

Further details, call British Tennisline on 0891 800 355.

* The British Schools' Lawn Tennis Association has nearly 3,000 schools as members out of the 32,000 schools in the UK. It runs national competitions, sponsored by the Midland Bank, which are open to state and independent schools and involve 30,000 children from 6,500 teams.

* Around 250,000 children under 12 play "short tennis" (smaller nets, courts and racquets and softer balls), 70 per cent of juniors who take part in national events started off playing short tennis.

* There are more than 7,000 qualified coaches in the country. Last year five million people claimed to have played tennis with nearly one million playing on average once a week, the majority for fun.

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