Roddy Mackenzie reports on moves to bring on new stars.
Everyone for tennis! That is the aim of the Scottish Lawn Tennis Association as it seeks to encourage more people to play regularly and to ensure there are opportunities for young players to develop talent.
Last Saturday was national play tennis day. Lack of facilities used to be the excuse for not playing and while that is still true in schools, the increase of private fitness centres means an extended range of facilities. There were only four purpose-built indoor courts in Scotland in 1994, but there will be at least 115 by 2001.
Ian Woodcraft, the outgoing development manager for the SLTA, believes that through short tennis Scotland is starting to produce some talented tennis players. Alan Mackin, Nicola Payne, Andrew Murray and Mhairi Brown, for example, are holding their own at UK level.
"What we have to do is ensure that this stream continues to flow and young players keep coming through," he says. "The situation has never been better in Scotland regarding the number of young players coming through. I think we're now seeing the benefits of the short tennis programme as all of these players started by playing the mini version of the game.
"The next stage we need to look at is keeping these players in Scotland, as success breeds success. The problem we have is that our best young players have to go to England or abroad to get competition. Tennis is not part of the Commonwealth Games and so we have no players aspiring to that."
Mr Woodcraft believes it is through private multisports clubs that the future of Scottish tennis will be best served. Mr Woodcraft, who leaves the SLTA later this month to become head of racket sports at a private club in Monifeith which boasts former leading Scottish player Ross Matheson as a coach, says: "I think young players will come through these clubs. They have the facilities and offer coaching for children and adults."
That, he says, will also encourage players to obtain coaching qualifications through the SLTA. "In the past, there were few jobs for tennis coaches but now there are a lot of job opportunities and a lot of our best coaches are in the private sector.
"I think the SLTA needs to work hand-in-hand with the private centres now After all, it doesn't matter where our talented players come from as long as they keep coming through."
The SLTA has forged closer links with schools in the past year. It now offers free short tennis equipment to primary schools that affiliate to a sports club and it has extended the Scottish Schools' Tennis Cup, which has traditionally taken place only in the summer term. The first three rounds are now held between August and October, and the schools that are knocked out in the first couple of rounds have the opportunity of a competition in the summer term that is played on a local basis.
In Ayrshire, the successful Cliff Richard Tennis Trail that involves primary schools includes a talent identification programme. However, Mr Woodcraft advocates that primary children should try various sports and not specialise too early. In that way, skills are allowed to develop naturally and there is less risk of "burn-out".
"It is difficult to put a specific age on when young players should specialise on one sport as everyone develops at a different rate," he says. "A lot also depends on parental influence and what the player enjoys. But these days there are not many sports which, if you want to be worldclass, you have not taken up by the age of 10."
Last year, Fife was selected as Scotland's top local authority for promoting tennis. Now Dunfermline has secured a pound;15,000 sponsorship grant from the Community Tennis Partnership for a six-year programme of events aimed at a greater uptake of tennis at grassroots level. The partnership is between Fife's education and community services, Dunfermline and West Fife Sports Council and Dunfermline Tennis Club.
Dunfermline High and Queen Anne High schools have instigated twice-weekly lunchtime coaching sessions for S1 and S2 pupils and local primary schools will be invited to take part in an eight-week after-school programme soon.
Last year, the tennis club enticed 120 young players to coaching sessions on its premises and at a local sports hall. Pat Reid, the club secretary, says: "This latest project will provide more opportunities for local people of all ages to take up tennis and will result in more people playing the game regularly at the schools, local authority courts and at club level."