Courting a new generation of pros

6th July 2007 at 01:00
Thanks to devoted staff and greater flexibility at some schools, tennis talent is being rewarded

A 5-0 lead in the tie-break slips away. A double-fault on match point. Graham Revie is irritated as he loses his grip on the match. But there are no tantrums, no beating his racket in frustration, no anguished cries. There is the shake of a hand, a shrug of the shoulders and a return to the grassy bank behind the court. To rejoin his school mates.

This was the week before Wimbledon and a world away from London SW19. St George's School in Edinburgh was hosting the final stages of the Scottish Schools Cup, and Revie, from the High School of Glasgow and son of former Scottish champion Ken, has just lost to Steve Birrell, from Madras College, who would triumph 5-1 in the final.

The competition unique to the Scottish tournament calendar has been running since 1963. Local rounds are played in late summer, with the top 32 in each of the boys' and girls' competitions playing in the autumn term as the tournament is whittled down, through the summer term, to the last four in each category.

Entries depend on access to courts and even St George's did not enter this past year, as its all-weather courts are used for hockey in the autumn.

Muriel Adams, president of Tennis Scotland and a former teacher, argues that the competition still has a valuable place on the calendar. "It is a misperception that it is limited to private schools. The fact of the matter is that last year the winners of the boys' and the girls' cups were from a state school Madras College and this year three of the four girls' teams are from state schools," she says.

"It's the willingness of the school to embrace tennis, combined with the facilities, that makes the difference. Madras, for example, has been hugely successful. In the past five years, there has rarely been a time when they have not been represented here."

Ms Adams puts Madras's success down to having a good coach, Mike Aitken, and to having a committed person on the school staff, Mary Jack, who ran the north county women's tennis and got them to group three in the British Inter Counties.

In the end, it is people that make things happen. "If the hypothesis is that private schools are doing it better, they can't be doing it that much better because there are state schools in the final of the Scottish Schools Cup," says Ms Adams.

Her words are borne out as Madras retains the boys' cup and Balerno High beats Robert Gordon's College in the girls' final 2-1 on a tie-break shoot-out after the final has finished 3-3.

The Robert Gordon's line-up includes Joanna Henderson, one of the rising stars of Scottish tennis, who recently won the British Under-14 clay court title. The support she has received from school has played a big part in fulfilling her potential, says Ms Adams. The day after the finals, she was given the last week off to concentrate on her tennis.

"Schools still have a huge role to play," Ms Adams emphasises. "They have a role in talent identification and in providing opportunities."

They also give considerable support to players. Someone like Joanna needs to have her school on her side, says Ms Adams. She has to take time off and schools have to be happy about that. Private schools are very much oriented towards the academic side and it's a big step for them to be happy for someone to miss school regularly.

"All credit to our schools who do that. It's something less for the players to worry about, if they are not always grovelling to get time off to train," she says.

A lot of club-school links are now being forged. "The key," says Ms Adams, "is always that there is a club waiting for them. Once they are on the club scene, they benefit from the facilities, coaching and insurance."

Merchiston Castle School has made it possible for some players to go there on a scholarship, be part of the school and fulfil the elements of their training programme whether it's going to Stirling or Craiglockhart twice a week.

What excites Ms Adams is that players will not have to choose between their education and sport. It seems Scottish sport is moving closer to the American model of scholarships for elite players, with schools playing an important role in the development of talent.

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