Best foot forward to Wimbledon

2nd May 2003 at 01:00
Scottish junior tennis ace Graeme Hood tells Roddy Mackenzie how a knee injury has interrupted his progress on court but benefited his university plans

Sixteen-year-old Graeme Hood has already achieved what only a select band of Scots can boast: he has played tennis at Wimbledon.

Sadly, the full story is not so impressive. It was as a pupil at Lawside Primary in St Andrews that Graeme took part in a tennis demonstration in a marquee during Wimbledon fortnight.

However, that experience, which gave him the chance to attend matches on court one and see Jim Courier among others, lit the fire of ambition within him. Now in his final year at Madras College in St Andrews, Graeme wants to play at Wimbledon in competition.

Fulfilling that ambition in his present circumstances seems a long time off. For months he has been using crutches after a knee operation and does not expect to be in action until late in the summer, which he finds frustrating.

"I had the operation on November 26 last year. I bashed my knee about five years ago and some bone grew into a lump. I had to have that removed," he explains.

"It's been very frustrating not being able to play and going along to watch tournaments and watching everyone else. But I've been working on my upper body strength in the gym and I hope to get rid of the crutches in the first week of May and be back playing by the end of the summer."

One bonus for Graeme is that he has been able to immerse himself in his studies as he seeks four Higher grade passes (in maths, physics, chemistry and biology) to enable him to go to Bath University. He admits he has found it difficult to take his books to tournaments to do homework on his travels, although he did pass six Standard grades in S4.

Bath University offers a respected tennis programme and Graeme would be able to pursue his dream of becoming a professional player. His sister Rachel, who is 20 and plays tennis to county level, is currently there.

"We were supposed to have a full-time facility at Heriot-Watt University but that fell through," he explains. "So now I'd like to go to Bath University, which has a strong sports base and good tennis programme."

Coached by Mike Aitken, Graeme was ranked in the top 10 at British junior level before his knee injury. He had played all over Europe and represented Great Britain in the under-14 team competition at the World Team Championships in Spain.

Because of his success, he has been able to tap into National Lottery funding through Tennis Scotland, the game's governing body, and he receives support from the sports goods company Wilson, which provides racquets and bags.

Graeme first took up short tennis at the age of five through sessions at primary school. This gave him the basic strokes and hand-eye co-ordination.

Then he went on to take up the full game at the age of eight as a member of the St Andrews Lawn Tennis Club. His interest grew after that first taste of Wimbledon and before long he was playing four nights a week and tournaments at weekends. His talent was quickly spotted and he started travelling to the centre of excellence at Stirling to train indoors three or four times a week.

"It was pretty hectic," he says, "as I was hardly ever at home. Stirling is an hour's drive away but it was the only place I could get the right standard of competition if I wanted to improve."

He knows that it takes a lot of sacrifice and commitment to be able to play on the professional circuit. "To play tennis these days, you have to be playing all year round and fortunately now we have good indoor facilities in this country," Graeme says. "But to improve significantly, you also have to attend tournaments in England, so there is a lot of travelling involved.

"My school have been really good at giving me time off for my tennis and supporting me but it does not really have a system for elite athletes."

Graeme is fortunate to be among a group of Scottish junior players now making a mark in the game. One player in his age group, Andy Murray, is attending a tennis school in Barcelona, where he plays every day but also gets academic work.

Moving away from home is something Graeme has seriously considered but he decided to get his schooling out of the way first.

"What would have happened if I'd been abroad at a tennis school and had picked up a serious injury and been on crutches for six months, not able to play?" he reasons. "That's why I feel it's best if I'm at home just now.

"I will need to move away - I think anyone who wants to play tennis to a high level has to - but I want to get my exams out of the way first.

"If tennis doesn't work out, then I'll need something to fall back on and I see myself going into pharmacology. But I haven't thought too much about that as I want to give tennis my best shot and see how far I can get with it."

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