Guiding the next Andys to stardom

21st April 2006 at 01:00
Scotland is hoping to nurture potential tennis champions with triple A qualities - aptitude, athleticism and attitude - at a new national academy, Roddy Mackenzie reports

Tennis Scotland plans to set up a national junior tennis academy in Stirling by September next year. The Lawn Tennis Association, which governs the game in England, has two such centres already, at Bath and Loughborough universities.

The Scottish centre will try to ensure that the success achieved by Andy Murray is not a one-off and that Scotland can produce a steady stream of players able to deal with the rigours of the world tennis circuit.

Within the next few weeks, a new national centre for adults will open in Stirling which will be linked closely to the Scottish Institute of Sport, and the junior academy will plug into these resources.

The proposals are still in the early stages and will depend on what level of funding Tennis Scotland has available, but with the governing body now looking at players as young as 6 or 7, a specialist academy is seen as a natural step for the most promising young players in the country.

It is understood that preliminary talks have already taken place with local schools about the feasibility of offering lessons to children who attend the academy.

Leon Smith, the LTA national training manager for Scotland, who coached Andy Murray from the age of 11 to 17, is helping to outline the academy proposals.

"What we could institute for the children at Stirling University is a programme where they would play tennis at the national centre and stay at a boarding school where their education is taken care of," he says.

"Or it could be like centres in England and across Europe, where they have schools within the tennis centres. So they have a classroom for a small number of pupils who get their schooling throughout the day as well as tennis coaching.

"Somewhere like Spain, where Andy went, they played tennis from 9am to 1pm - it would be three hours of tennis and one hour of fitness - and then they'd go to school between 2pm and 4pm and come back out and play tennis from 4pm to 6pm.

"Andy was turning 16 at the time. To be honest, the academic side wasn't his main priority at that stage, I think. When he went there, he was already number two in the world at under-18 level and wanted to play full-time.

"We have two boarding schools that are currently interested in tying in with the national centre in Stirling.

"The other options are internet learning, which seems to be increasingly popular, and private tuition, but that's more expensive."

Mr Smith believes it is essential to look at players at primary school age to assess their potential for the future but, ideally, the academy would be looking at players aged 12 upwards.

"If a child from the Highlands, for example, is showing good potential at 10 or 11 and needs to play more and just can't because of the weather, then we may look at taking him or her into the academy at that age. But I think you have to be very careful about taking someone out of the home environment at such a young age."

The Scottish game has never had brighter prospects, with four players currently ranked in the top 300 in the world at senior level - Andy Murray (44), Alan Mackin (263), Jamie Baker (283) and, in the women's, Elena Baltacha (213) - and a cluster of juniors doing well on the world circuit.

In the past, the lack of a support structure has meant that Scotland's most promising young players, such as Gillian Charnock (who was once the top British under-14 player but gave up because of the expense) and Barry McColl (who chose to pursue a football career with Rangers instead), have not been able to fulfil their potential in the game, but that is changing.

Mr Smith knows exactly what he is looking for in terms of young players with ambitions to follow in Murray's footsteps.

"We start a talent identification process as young as 6 or 7 years old," he says. "That's not to say you have to be playing good tennis at that age in order to make it as a professional player. However, it is an early specialisation sport. It's a bit like gymnastics but maybe not as extreme.

"Girls are breaking on to the Women's Tennis Association tour at 15 to 16 years old. If you look at the under-18 world rankings, a lot of the players are around 14 years old. So for the girls, we have to pick them up between the ages of 6 to 8 and start them on a performance programme."

The idea is to have children that age playing three times a week in a structured environment and fun competitions at weekends to get them involved in match play.

"We're looking for talent. We need hand skills and you have to be a bit special with the racket.

"We're also looking for attitude. For too many years the British attitude was one that we didn't mind players losing as long as they put up a good fight. But now we're looking for young players with real heart.

"Andy gets very angry on court and is really animated. That's the sort of passion we're looking for.

"We also look at the physical aspect: are they quick and well co-ordinated? Can they multi-task? We're looking for good athletes.

"Then, when we identify them, it is up to us to put them into performance programmes in their area and make sure they're getting what they need.

"Andy has done fantastically well. My first overseas trip with him was to the under-12 world championships in Florida and he won it. Ever since then, he has been winning his age categories."

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