Anyone for tennis?

9th May 2008 at 01:00
At the end of a successful first year, Tennis Scotland is looking to expand its academy programme to take in other schools
At the end of a successful first year, Tennis Scotland is looking to expand its academy programme to take in other schools.

The governing body established an academy with 12 of Scotland's most promising players last year - seven girls and five boys - through two Edinburgh private schools, Merchiston Castle and St George's.

The players, aged nine to 17, work to a flexible curriculum and receive tennis coaching at Craig-lockhart Sports Centre and Stirling University. It is a model Tennis Scotland wants to grow.

Interest in the game has reached unprecedented levels, following the success of Andy Murray. Ellinore Lightbody, the Scottish national coach, believes facilities must be in place to allow the best schools players to develop in this country. "We're close to having that infrastructure and I feel confident we can offer that to children up to the age of 14," she says.

"We have an academy in Scotland where we can combine education and tennis. This is year one and it's been very successful. There is a big improvement in the players, as we've been able to get them on court more."

Merchiston Castle and St George's have been very helpful, she says, adjusting their education programmes to allow quality tennis time within curriculum time. "The young players specify the subjects they want to study, so they do a reduced number of Standard grades and Highers and can access university when it becomes an option. But the priority at the moment is tennis."

"The players can be on court 12-16 hours a week around their education. They have a full support programme with physical profiling, strength and conditioning, and psychology - and it's all at the two venues. We need to expand that programme throughout Scotland to make sure we can get more children involved," she says.

Ms Lightbody cannot stress enough the importance of schools in finding the next generation of talent. Tennis Scotland is hosting a series of festivals for school-children throughout Scotland over the summer - 900 attended this month's festival at Craiglockhart, and similar events will be held in St Andrews, Aberdeen, Glasgow and Prestwick.

"The objective is to get more and more people aware of tennis and the skills involved, and how much enjoyment you can get out of the game," she explains. "We're in the process of appointing new members of staff called talent and performance co-ordinators. Their brief will be to work with the very talented six to eight year-olds and have a direct link with schools.

"They will encourage schools to run lunchtime clubs, competitions and school clubs and to link with their local tennis clubs. In that way, we can catch those players early and make sure there is a pathway right through from schools to international tennis.

"We have a lot of good kids coming through now."

Best of both worlds

James McKie is convinced the new Scottish Tennis Academy has given him the foundations to become a success at the game - and given him a solid academic platform.

The 17-year-old moved from George Heriot's School to join the academy last September and is managing to combine his studies and tennis.

This month, he'll sit four A-levels (biology, geography, economics and PE) and then face a busy summer of tournaments on the tennis circuit.

"Coming to Merchiston Castle was the best decision I've made. To work with Marcel De Doudray, who has coached Nikolay Davydenko, has been pretty unbelievable," he says. "Before, I was rushing tennis and trying to shove a game in at night or whenever I had the time. Here, my tennis works in well with my lessons.

"During the winter timetable, I have lessons every Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning and three hours of tennis before lessons from 4-6pm. During the summer timetable, I have lessons until 3.55pm and it's still light enough to get in a few hours of tennis.

"The teachers at Merchiston bend over backwards to help you. We operate a Saturday timetable but I often miss classes because I am at tournaments. However, I can make an appointment to see a teacher at 7pm and be given work to catch up on."

James believes he has the best of both worlds at the academy. "I'm quite unusual for a tennis player in that I'm still at school at 17," he says. "Around 70 per cent of tennis players leave school after 16 to play on the professional circuit. But only 13 per cent make it. That means they have nothing to fall back on if they don't get academic qualifications.

"I'm getting the best of both worlds - I can pursue my tennis and my studies."

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