Everyone for tennis?

2nd September 2005 at 01:00
Scotland hopes to capitalise on Andrew Murray's Wimbledon success to inspire a new generation, writes Roddy Mackenzie

Murraymania, it appears, has not yet subsided. The exploits of Dunblane's Andy Murray at Wimbledon gave Scottish tennis the media exposure it could only have dreamt about in the past.

Two months later, pupils are badgering PE teachers to show them how to play. Those who bought a racket over the holidays have discovered that tennis is more difficult than it looks.

Tennis Scotland, the game's governing body, believes it has the answer.

Brochures on Ariel Mini Tennis have been sent out to 400 affiliated schools and there is a drive to get them to play a leading role in broadening the base of Scottish players.

Mini Tennis has been developed to take players from the age of five in a structured programme up to playing the full game. Tennis Scotland is working closely with the active schools network to promote this version of the game and get it on to the school curriculum.

With smaller courts, nets, rackets and slower balls, Mini Tennis graduates through red, orange and, finally, green stages before progression to full tennis. It involves a series of games to improve co-ordination and movement as well as racket and ball skills designed to stimulate and engage schoolchildren.

Mini Tennis has taken over from short tennis, which revolutionised the sport 20 years ago but did not offer an obvious step up to the full game.

It resulted in many youngsters sticking with the abbreviated version.

Mat Hulbert, director of tennis for Tennis Scotland, believes that Murray's success will have a huge spin-off for the sport. Getting it into the schools through Mini Tennis will pave the way for the future. The foundation stones are being laid for a national training centre in Stirling, to open in March. Several Scots are making their mark on the international circuit, so the game has never been in better fettle in Scotland.

"It's been fantastic," Mr Hulbert enthuses. "It seems that every day there is a story on Andy in the newspapers. There has been a huge interest in the game here and schools are now coming to us, asking how they can get children playing.

"Having a role model like Andy is a big factor in getting Scottish schoolchildren playing the game. In the past, we have not had someone like that getting worldwide exposure. Suddenly, it seems, everyone wants to play tennis.

"Five years ago, we probably would have found it difficult to cope, but we have professionalised our coaching in recent years and now have a good network of people who work closely with our development officers.

"Coaching is a lonely profession - I know this as I'm a coach myself - and you can often feel isolated and caught up with your own particular area, but I am happy now we have the correct system in place to offer support to our coaches."

Tennis Scotland wants schools to get its message across with the aim of making the game an all year round sport.

"People have this misconception that when you are teaching, you can only take two or four pupils at a time and the rest of the class is sitting around doing nothing," says Mr Hulbert. "That is not the case with Mini Tennis, as the whole class can be involved at the same time. Schools don't need their own courts: it can be played in a gym hall or even out in the car park. You don't need a lot of space."

Tennis Scotland organises courses for teachers - four hours for primary staff and six hours for secondary. And there is also a huge online resource pack and the chance to purchase the specialised equipment at a discounted rate.

The governing body wants to increase the number of schools affiliated. The benefits for the pound;13 annual subscription have been increased to make it more attractive. In addition to online resources and magazines from the British Schools' Tennis Association, there is the chance to purchase Wimbledon tickets through the ballot system.

"Our top players have tended to start in the clubs. It's quite unusual for someone to start playing tennis in school. We want to change that," says Mr Hulbert. "Of course, we need to have strong school-club links and I think that message has maybe got slightly lost with our whole Club Vision strategy. It's something we want to re-emphasise."

Mr Hulbert would like to see the annual Scottish schools cups, dominated by private schools, become more inclusive. If schools are held back because they don't have their own courts, they might be able to use club facilities which are often unused throughout the day. This would help foster school-club links.

The game could well take its lead from Scottish Rugby, which has seen its schools' cups take off in recent years and now includes an under-15 competition.

"We'd love to extend it and get more schools involved, although we appreciate that it can be difficult if they do not have access to their own courts," says Mr Hulbert. "But the more schools are involved, the better."

Tennis Scotland, www.tennisscotland.org

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