Tennis stretches for more top spin
As Tennis Scotland's director of tennis, Mat Hulbert has spent more than four years involved in development work. Surveying the final stages of the Scottish schools' championships at St George's School in Edinburgh last week, he knows there is still a need for a focal point for tennis in Scotland.
The schools' cup competition is now firmly established, with 32 teams in the boys' event this year and 31 in the girls'. And Mr Hulbert acknowedges the game is "vibrant" at junior level and a lot of players have come through to make a mark at senior level (Alan Mackin, Andy and Jamie Murray and Elena Baltacha to name a few). However, the best young talent still has to head south or even abroad to hone their skills.
The next few weeks will be tense as Tennis Scotland waits to hear whether its application for National Lottery funding for a new national indoor centre at Stirling University is approved. It will know before the end of July. Mr Hulbert believes the pound;500,000 sought is not an excessive amount considering other awards in recent years (such as the pound;1.2 million towards the adventure centre at Ratho, which has already gone into administration within months of opening).
As he tries to map out a five-year strategy for tennis, he says: "The national centre is pivotal to our performance programme.
"I'm embarrassed that it's taken so long; it's been seven years. The first national centre was to be at Largs, but that fell through, and then it was to be at Heriot-Watt University, where we were even at the stage of choosing the colour of the carpets, but that also did not happen, through no fault of our own, and the funding was no longer available from the university. Now we have the blueprint for Stirling University and it all depends on Lottery funding.
"Psychologically, it would just be so beneficial to everyone in Scottish tennis to know we had our own national centre up and running.
"We need a national centre to act as a focus. Then we can have a number of accredited performance clubs linking in to it. Just now, it's all fragmented and we need something to bring it together.
"If all goes to plan, we'd hope to have the new centre running by October 2005."
The total cost of the project is pound;1.2 million. Tennis Scotland already has pound;325,000 committed from the university and pound;450,000 from the Lawn Tennis Association in England. There are already four indoor courts with performance acrylic surfaces at Stirling University and four all-weather, floodlit outdoor courts but Tennis Scotland is looking for two more stand-alone courts and office space with a resource room which would allow video analysis of players.
"We'd not be looking for it to be residential, but we would have access to the university accommodation if we held coaching weekends," he says.
"The performance centre is as much to train the coaches as the players. We recently had a top Belgian coach over here who was telling us there are 800 licensed coaches in his country, 80 of whom are elite coaches. In Scotland, we only have three or four elite coaches.
"We have good club coaches who give a lot of commitment and do invaluable work, but we need to get more elite coaches if we are to get the full potential out of our young players."
There is no shortage of interest in tennis, but there are obstacles. The short summer term and lack of facilities in schools can hold the game back.
In the schools' cup competition, roughly half of the entries come from private schools. Tennis Scotland is now involving itself in the Active Schools programme to try to get more schoolchildren playing.
"We've got to get away from the idea in schools that only three or four players can play at a time," Mr Hulbert says. "You can string a net across a school playground and 20 kids can be involved.
"There is a huge number of people who play and it's a great sport for youngsters, not only for cardiovascular fitness but for hand-eye co-ordination," he enthuses.
An encouraging 3,200 primary schoolchildren have gone through the mini-tennis programme, the introductory game. It is taking them on to the next level that is the challenge. Without a national centre, Mr Hulbert argues, that will be all the more difficult.