Courting success

17th June 2011 at 01:00
As Wimbledon fortnight begins, most eyes will be on Andy Murray. But doubles champion Sarah Borwell will be focused on helping a group of schoolgirls win tennis scholarships to US universities.

Sarah Borwell is a surprise. The tennis players we see on our screens at this time of year seem so driven, focused and competitive that you expect them to be interested mainly in themselves. But Britain's number one doubles player would rather talk about the schoolgirls she helps to attain sports scholarships in the States.

"It takes a lot of work to get accepted. They register online, sit the SAT exam (scholastic aptitude test), put together a CV and create a video of themselves playing tennis to send out to colleges. It's stressful for them and their parents. I help with all that."

The rewards for those talented youngsters who do get into the American college system are hard to imagine in Scotland, where serious money rarely gets into any sport. "It's a different world," says Sarah. "If they get a scholarship, the only thing they pay for is their flight over. They get two coaches, a fitness trainer, a nutritionist, an academic adviser and a physiotherapist.

"Their classes are paid for and they get $1,000 (pound;614) a month for food and accommodation. If they're in a Texas university, they might fly out to California with their team at the weekend to play. It's all paid for."

Wealthy alumni, college football and a country that's sold on sport help fund the system, she says. "In Iowa, where I now train, they get 60,000 spectators at college football games. The facilities at American universities are amazing - indoor running tracks, Olympic-sized swimming pools. There's nothing like it in this country."

Since the rewards for winning a scholarship are so high, there are plenty of organisations ready to offer young talent a hand, for a fee. "You can easily pay pound;1,000," says Sarah. "I've been doing it for free for five years. I work closely with the Lawn Tennis Association. I have got 45 girls scholarships over the past two years and I'm working with another 20 for 2012. I feel so passionate about helping these girls that I want to do it full time when I retire."

Ten years on the tennis circuit and a scholarship in Houston, where she became a top 10 US college player, have given the Middlesbrough pro an intimate knowledge of US tennis, she says. Matching the learning style of a player with the teaching style of a coach is vital.

"I have good relationships with all the top coaches and I know their coaching styles. With a player who wants an arm round her to tell her she's great, you don't send her to a set-up she'll find stressful. Then there are girls with great potential who need to grow up. I put them with coaches who'll give them a kick up the bum when they need it."

No other individual puts as much time and effort into guiding youngsters into tennis scholarships in the States. But the sport's governing bodies - the Lawn Tennis Association and Tennis Scotland - do more for young talent than ever before, says the latter's David Macdermid.

"Five years ago, there might have been youngsters on American college scholarships that we didn't know about," he says. "Not now. We keep close tabs on all our players."

Combining tennis with education is now seen as the sensible choice. "A few years ago, the burn-out rate was horrendous," he says. "There's no way Tracy Austin, Andrea Jaeger and lots of others fulfilled their potential. There's also the realisation that top players are made for life, but a lot of tennis pros eke out a living. A good education, in addition to tennis, is the well-rounded way."

Without Sarah's help, Morven McCulloch might not have been able to take that path. "I started applying to American universities early last year," she says. "I wasn't having much luck. They're looking at lots of players and it's hard to tell if they're interested. You think they are, then they stop replying."

At the suggestion of a friend, the St Andrews 17-year-old rang Sarah and asked for assistance. "She's been really helpful, suggesting places to try, talking to coaches about me," she says. "She's done an awful lot for someone she doesn't know. We talk on the phone. I'm going to the University of Iowa, where Sarah will be training. I'm really looking forward to meeting her."

The more support Sarah can provide, the happier she feels. But there are commentators who claim that talented young British players are generally "mollycoddled", then sink without trace in the professional game.

Tennis Scotland's David Macdermid is aware of the argument. "There might be a grain of truth in it," he says. "But young tennis players need good facilities and coaching to fulfil their potential and we must support them as much as we can."

Twenty-year-old Katie Gater from Dunblane, now in the second year of a tennis scholarship at the University of Virginia, still gets support from Sarah. "I first met her when I was training at the National Tennis Centre in Roehampton," she says. "She showed me what to do to attract coaches. She's a bubbly, approachable person and knows a huge network of people.

"I was a bit overwhelmed when I came over to the US at first. Everything was so big. But it's going well. Sarah is always asking how I'm doing, and she has set up a Facebook page to connect all the girls on tennis scholarships together."

It's too easy for talented school-leavers to take the wrong path, Sarah says. "I get kids coming to me on tour who feel lost, but don't have any academics to fall back on. They're not fully developed, physically, mentally or emotionally. The dropout rate for girls between 16 and 18 is 50 per cent.

"But the average age for women on tour is now 24. It takes three to four years to get into the top 100 and the average length of a career is seven years. So there is no rush. You can go on tour at 22, make the top 100 by 25 and have another five years to make your money. And you have a degree to fall back on.

"You can have it all."

A new five-year strategy for tennis in Scotland will be launched during Wimbledon fortnight:

Tennis Academy: intereststennis-academy


Mum and dad were teachers and we didn't have bags of money. I was a tomboy with loads of energy and good at most sports. But I wasn't sure I liked competing. It was the social side of tennis that kept me going - the family atmosphere.

I used to get nervous. I remember being petrified and counting the days to a tournament when I was 15. I was a top 10 junior, but quite a shy kid.

My mum did a lot of the work to get me a scholarship. I went to Rice University in Houston, Texas. Orientation week was incredible. Then school started and I struggled. Rice is really academic, so I was studying until two in the morning, then getting up at six to play tennis.

I transferred to the University of Houston and was much happier. Everyone was so positive and supportive. I started believing in myself, got a degree in business four years later and went on the tour.

I make sure that girls know the kind of school they are going to, so they don't struggle like I did. I like hearing relief in parents' voices when they know someone is supporting their child and seeing how happy they are.

My whole family are teachers or coaches. My parents are incredible. They'd take me and 10 of my mates out when we were young, then put mattresses on the floor for all of us. In the morning mum would cook us a full English breakfast.

Sarah on Twitter http:twitter.comsarahborwell


Morven McCulloch

I grew up in St Andrews, so I played a lot of golf. Tennis was just fun at first. But I reached a final when I was 10 and realised I wasn't bad. I came to St George's School for Girls in Edinburgh, where Tennis Scotland had opened its tennis academy. That was a big step.

They set up the tennis programme and work the education around it. We miss a lot of classes, so the teachers work very hard to support us. I got four Highers last year.

When I heard about scholarships, in the US, I thought they sounded great. They play every day and have matches with different colleges at the weekend. It was hard to get accepted. Sarah was brilliant. She helped me get into the University of Iowa. I liked the coaches when I spoke to them.

You do general education in the first year at US universities, so I don't choose which subject I study yet.

You play a lot of tennis. I'll enjoy the whole team thing, with everyone supporting you. I'm a bit of a perfectionist, so I like someone telling me to stick at it and I'll get it right.

I am nervous going over to America on my own. But I'm excited about it as well. I would like to go on the pro circuit eventually, if it turns out I'm good enough.

Katie Gater

I had tennis classes when I was five but hated it. I started playing again and enjoying it when I was eight. Andy Murray's mum offered to coach me. After Highers at Dunblane High, I took a gap year to concentrate on tennis. I ended it ranked fourth for juniors and started thinking I could go to the States.

With Sarah's help, I emailed 30 universities and got five offers. I chose the University of Virginia because I liked the campus and the team. It's been a great experience - very intense. Sport is so big here. The stadiums are massive and everything is so professional.

Balancing studies and sport is hard. We have lectures and discussions from nine until two, then tennis practice and training from two until six. I have two years left to see how good my tennis is - then I'll decide. I would like to play after college, but it's difficult to make it as a pro.

At college you're in a team with eight other girls. When you see them doing it, you believe you can too. It's so different from playing individual tournaments. You all support each other. I really like that.


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