Net gains for tennis prospects
As the curtain came down on a fabulous Wimbledon 2008, another, unheralded event was taking place which might give fresh hope of producing a British champion in SW19 - the first-ever group of advanced tennis apprentices were completing their training.
The Advanced Apprenticeship in Sporting Excellence (AASE) is designed to give an added depth of understanding of the game and provide a plan-B for those who seek a behind-the-scenes career in the sport.
It was developed by Sports Active, the sector skills council for sport, in collaboration with the Learning and Skills Council and the Lawn Tennis Association (LTA). The first 64 teenagers who took up the two-year apprenticeship complete this summer, closely followed by 80 more who took up a one-year programme last year.
All the apprentices are aged 16-18, with 63 per cent of them being male. They include rising star Niall Angus, 17, from Middlesex, a right-hander who employs a double-handed backhand.
Niall has reached the semi-finals in boys' tournaments in Uruguay, Belgium and Nottingham at singles, and in Nottingham and Sutton in Surrey at doubles. His world under-18 ranking shot from 416 to 56 while on the programme. But despite a busy summer on court, he has still managed his studies.
"I use the down time while waiting around for tournaments or in the evening at the centre," said Niall. "The studying aspect is good because it gives you back-up qualifications like coaching."
Many of the apprentices will have their sights on the 2012 London Olympics and Paralympics, having studied and honed their skills at 18 LTA centres, including Chiswick in London and Sutton, not far from Wimbledon.
The AASE programme is intended to provide training to A-level equivalent standard across a range of sports, including football, to provide more rounded career opportunities for teenagers.
Sport and leisure is a growing employment sector in the UK, but a lack of business acumen and other non-athletic skills have led to people dropping out.
The course equips students to enter a sports career as a non-player, or to begin by competing and then have the skills to stay on in a coaching or administrative role when they need to step back from playing sport professionally.
As well as studying the technical, tactical, physical and psychological aspects of their chosen sport, students will also look at wider issues such as lifestyle, communication, career management and health and safety.
Alternative jobs open to those who complete the apprenticeship include coaching, which has been identified as a shortage area.
Students are expected to be apprentices at professional clubs, full-time athletes or in the Talented Athlete Scholarship Scheme. Sports involved in addition to tennis include rowing, football, rugby union, golf, cricket, basketball, boxing and swimming.