Tennis project courts pupils in Glasgow

18th June 2010 at 01:00
With Wimbledon starting on Monday, Judy Murray and the LTA give east end kids their first lessons

Only one name came up when pupils at Our Lady of Peace Primary were asked who should open their new sports pitch: Andy Murray.

Headteacher Elizabeth Robertson was surprised. This was the football-mad east end of Glasgow and there wasn't a tennis court for miles. Not one of the school's 209 pupils had ever played it, as far as she knew.

The sport has had an unprecedented profile in Scotland in recent years, thanks to the world No 4's exploits. The visit of his mother Judy this week (he was preparing for Wimbledon) showed how Murraymania could be channelled into playing tennis.

Ross Paterson, 8, turns round, wide-eyed with a dawning realisation: "I'm good at tennis, in't I?" He hits a solid forehand over one of two nets set up in the playground, and celebrates with an impromptu star jump. Another shot is despatched and his blond spiked hair cuts a swathe through players on the neighbouring court as he rushes to retrieve the ball.

Kelsey Anderson, 7, looks less assured. She stands stiff and straight, feet planted on the ground, as Ms Murray gently dinks a ball over the net. The racquet looks heavy in her hands; she swings and hits fresh air. But the next shot is a textbook forehand that fizzes past the coach, who smiles, nods and says: "That's the best shot of today."

Ms Murray cautions that tennis is "becoming more accessible but still has a long way to go". She believes the most crucial factor will be building links between schools and clubs.

Our Lady of Peace's nearest club, Mount Vernon, is about two miles away and not linked by a bus route; there are no other courts anywhere near the school.

Tennis in the UK has long had an image problem. It has widely been perceived as a sport for toffs in gated clubs; everyone else only flirted with it during Wimbledon fortnight.

The impact at the top level has been clear. Britain has been waiting for a Grand Slam champion since Fred Perry won the US Open in 1936. Players such as Andy Murray and Tim Henman have been the exceptions: the UK is an also- ran in tennis terms. But the Lawn Tennis Association (LTA), through its charitable arm the Tennis Foundation, is trying to bring the sport to the masses. The AEGON Schools Programme aims to overcome not just the image problem, but two more practical barriers: the absence of suitable facilities in schools, and the lack of confidence among teachers.

The scheme is putting pound;3.8 million worth of tennis equipment into schools. Those signing up receive a pack including 30 racquets, 60 balls and a pop- up net. It is hoped this will enable any school to provide tennis, even in small spaces that might not normally be used for PE.

Teachers take part in a three-hour training session, but are not expected to be coaches. An instructive DVD with Dan Bloxham, head coach of the Wimbledon Junior Tennis Initiative, is played as pupils line up with their racquets. Dan shows the skills and drills to practise; teachers ensure everything goes smoothly, although the more confident are choosing to take sessions themselves.

"It's designed for the non-specialist teacher," says Tennis Foundation education manager Tom Gibbins.

There are three levels of DVD for different age groups, and they have been devised so teachers do not require any expertise.

Louise Braidwood, a visiting PE specialist in the Auchterarder area of Perth and Kinross, has led the initial three-hour sessions for local teachers. The children have taken quickly to it because they rarely get to try such a sport, they each have a racquet, and the programme's simple skills lead to quick successes - also, Andy Murray hails from nearby. Even Blackford Primary, with a hall half the size of a badminton court, has given the thumbs-up.

Since the scheme started across the UK last year, 688 primaries in Scotland have received packs. That's 20,640 racquets, all of which resemble something Murray might use - not the plastic bats that provided an introduction to tennis in the past. A secondary programme, with elements including cardiovascular training and leadership, started recently.

The primary programme will also encourage tennis clubs to open to pupils. Five years ago, 27 per cent of English schools had a link to a club; now it is 42 per cent, the Tennis Foundation says. No figures have been compiled in Scotland, but anecdotal evidence suggests a similar surge.

Technical innovations are making tennis more accessible - such as huge plastic bubbles that make outdoor courts playable in all weather - and there are attempts to counter preconceptions with raw data.

Far from being "elitist and expensive", it costs an average of 45p a week for an under-10 child to join a tennis club, says Mr Gibbins.

At Our Lady of Peace, the first of two sessions ends with a mixed doubles game, as seven-year-olds Emma Neary and Paul Nganbet pair up with Judy Murray and Mike Cohen, tennis development manager for the west of Scotland. Less than 45 minutes into their tennis careers, Emma is impressing with her graceful serves and Paul's punchy groundstrokes call Andre Agassi to mind.

Nascent tennis talents are appearing in Scotland who, until last year, might never have picked up a racquet in their lives.

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