The days of Scotland's best young tennis players having to head south of the border to test and fulfil their potential are numbered, writes Roddy Mackenzie
For too long, Scotland's most talented young tennis players have had to clock up thousands of miles a year in search of suitable competition. Also it used to be the case that indoor facilities were lacking in Scotland. Many players dropped out of the sport due to the commitment and expenditure involved.
This is no longer necessary, with 84 indoor tennis courts currently available throughout the country - though many are in private fitness centres - and a national training and competition centre due to be completed next year at Heriot-Watt University on the outskirts of Edinburgh, which will provide full-time coaching and a minimum of six indoor courts.
The Heriot-Watt centre, which will be housed in a sort of sports village with the Heart of Midlothian youth facility and a squash centre, is expected to offer young players everything they need to make it to the top in the game. As well as access to sports medicine and top-level coaching, youngsters can be accommodated in a block at the halls of residence and educated at local schools.
Scottish national tennis coach Judy Murray has recently returned from Paris where she was viewing a new low-maintenance court surface at Incep, the French national centre for sport, to see if it was suitable for the Heriot-Watt complex.
Incep focuses on eight sports, including tennis, volleyball and athletics. Mrs Murray was impressed by how young athletes received their schooling at the complex, with the teachers coming in rather than the children attending local schools. The system is supported by the French government, which backs its leading sports athletes and wants to ensure they have the minimum of upheaval but still have access to good schooling.
"Instead of the situation where players go to the local schools, as the Lawn Tennis Association does with Bisham Abbey, in Berkshire, the teachers come to the training facility and the players are taught there," explains Mrs Murray.
"The pupils do go to local schools if they need to use specific equipment for the likes of physics and chemistry, but mostly they are based at the centre.
"The good thing is that they are also rubbing shoulders with athlets from different sports and it gives them a wider outlook, whereas at Bisham Abbey they are dealing only with tennis players. I feel it's much healthier when you are mixing with other sports at that age.
"At Incep, the players are guaranteed four hours a day on court and also do an hour of physical work with athletes from other sports."
The players at Incep are taken on for two-year contracts until the age of 15 and the exceptional players will progress to the national centre at Rolland Garros and play full-time. The others can be fed back into the regional framework, where the standard of competition is still good.
"For the Heriot-Watt facility," continues Mrs Murray, "we'd be looking at taking players in at the age of 13-14. The regional structure in Scotland is not strong enough to provide suitable competition for players once they reach a certain standard, unlike in France or Spain.
"We'd be looking at having boarders and already three local schools are being considered for the players to attend."
Scottish junior tennis has never had a better stock of talented youngsters, with players reaching the last four of all of the British age-group championships - under-12, under-14, under-16 and under-18 - this year.
Mrs Murray puts this down to an investment in coaching. The Scottish Lawn Tennis Association recognised the need to improve its coaching structure five or six years ago to ensure that young players had suitable back-up. It used to be the case that the Scottish junior squad met once a month for coaching. Now the system allows young players access to individual tuition three or four times a week.
Four Scottish coaches - Toby Smith (Glasgow), Kris Soutar (Aberdeen), Ben Saunders (Edinburgh) and Karen Ross (Ayr) - have all been put on fast-track coaching programmes to deal with high performance so that the best young players should not be found wanting.
Mrs Murray concedes that school tennis still involves mainly private schools who have the facilities but that is changing. Club-school links have improved in recent years with the SLTA's development officers actively encouraging such relationships to flourish.
The national coach believes that the new centre at Heriot-Watt is the final piece in the jigsaw towards Scotland being able to produce a world-class player.