The coach, the ladies and the champ: Matthew Gwyther covers the baseline

The professional tennis circuit is in the doldrums: Jennifer Capriati is in a drug rehabilitation clinic, a bored Jim Courier is reading Armistead Maupin novels during change-overs, television ratings and crowds are down, sponsors are pulling out. But London's amateur circuit is thriving, as anyone who has turned up at the park on the off chance of getting a court will testify.

Londoners' enthusiasm for the game survives against the odds. Although some good public facilities exist, we are forced to play on warped and potholed courts, with ripped nets and not a shower in sight except from the sky. Private clubs are often expensive and also chock-a-bloc.

Things are improving slowly. The latest of the 27 public centres that the Lawn Tennis Association's Indoor Tennis Initiative has established round the country (including the Islington tennis centre) opens under the Westway on 11 June. It cost pounds 1.4m to build and will offer year-round coaching courses by in-house professionals. The LTA badly wants some British winners and it suspects they are more likely to be city street kids than Virginias and Christophers from Esher. But how about Neil from Potter's Bar?


'Now, I hope that you're not going to be making a joke out of us,' warned Joyce Hamilton, the 85-year-old forehand side player of probably the oldest ladies doubles pair in London. You cheek Mrs Hamilton at your peril. She is the widow of the head of one of the boarding houses at Dulwich College and has doubtless dealt with large numbers of whipper-snappers in her time.

Her tennis partner since 1956 has been Margaret Samson, now 82. Mrs Samson was a professional dancer, first appearing at Her Majesty's Theatre in Song of the Sea in 1928. Her late husband was a Camberwell GP and she lives in Dulwich Village.

'When I was young it was like being in the films,' recalls Mrs Hamilton. 'The Autumn tour was Kidderminster or Cheltenham. Everyone had a court and we had tennis parties. And we'd dance all the time. You'd just go into a room and put on the gramophone and dance. I was privileged and I suppose rather spoiled, but it was a period of hope. There was no hurry.'

The Hamilton/Samson partnership always plays on Thursday mornings, weather permitting. 'Until very recently we really did flash about a bit. We may be old but we're pretty supple,' said Mrs Hamilton. 'Margaret is expert at the diagonal shot just over the net. I'm rather expert at little cuts that just drop over the net and die.' 'Yes, you've always got to look for your opponents weaknesses,' said Mrs Samson. 'So many people have no backhand.'

We went out for a knock-up on the court in Wells Park, Sydenham, a couple of minutes from Mrs Hamilton's house. 'Don't expect too much,' said Mrs Hamilton, doing up the laces of her Dunlop Green Flash. 'I had a stroke about two and a half years ago and I'm at rather a wobbly stage at the moment. So I serve underarm. But I'm still pretty good at anticipation.' The pair took up their positions, the same as for the past 38 years.

'The main thing is not to give up,' recommended Mrs Samson, over tea afterwards. 'Once you've given up you can't go back.' 'Yes,' said Mrs Hamilton. 'We said to our daughters that we'd give up tennis as soon as they beat us. And they never have.'


Tim Berrington is a tennis coach with a difference. He is also a professional actor. One day he is out at the Camberwell Club or Market Sports in Spitalfields perfecting customers' volleys for pounds 15 per hour, the next he is shooting a TV advert for the Daily Mail - 'yes, fifty thousand pounds could be yours]'

He survived eight months in Brookside playing a 'laddish Southern jessie' and has just returned from Hawaii where he was filming an advert for a Swiss bank. He got a few sets in between takes - 'They had free municipal courts there which were of a very high standard with showers, changing rooms, everything.'

Serious and encouraging without a trace of the luvvy, he is a very good coach and you feel you've really covered the ground during the hour. His speciality is remedial work with no-hopers. 'I'm good at taking people who are convinced they cannot play at all. Real non-sporting types. I've had a few who are actually frightened of a tennis ball.'

He is aware that the acting profession has a slightly dodgy reputation as white-teethed, big-tanned, track-suited Lotharios. 'I've had to wriggle out of a couple of slightly sticky situations,' he admits. 'The classic is the well-off woman who wants to talk rather than play. Of course you have to listen. By the second lesson she has new kit featuring a shorter skirt and more make-up. Then she asks for the last lesson of the day.

'The next thing you know, her husband turns up to watch. . . It would be professional suicide to get involved with anyone and bound to end in tears. If you feel things are getting dicey you get out there fast and just hit balls.'

Potential problems related to physical intimacy are dealt with on the LTA coaching courses. 'The only thing you ever touch is the racket or at most the hand,' says Berrington. 'You teach from the front, never from behind. Wrapping yourself around people is bad technique.'


Victoria Wicks, who plays Sally the news reader in Drop the Dead Donkey, commutes daily from her village near Cheltenham into London to film episodes of the series. She is often out on the tennis court and is also teaching her eight-year-old daughter Madeleine to play. 'I use it to revitalise myself and as a confidence pick-up,' she says.

She also plays on the pro-celebrity charity circuit for the Lorna Fogarty Trust which raises money for young players. Cliff Richard, a powerful player who has held his own on court with Steffi Graf, is the acknowledged leading light in this area. 'He's really very good,' says Victoria.

Victoria grew up in Chippenham, where her father was a vet, and started playing at 11. 'It was a classic, British small club,' she says. 'Everyone changed together in a hut half the size of a cricket pavilion and you put your money in a tin. There were a lot of 'sorries' to be heard about the place.'

Now 35, her serve and backhand are working fine but she thinks her forehand is in need of some work. 'But my real problem, which I share with many people, is that I'm too good a loser. I should be much grumpier and more determined to win.'

'I'm not really a club person any more. As a woman it's not easy to be truly competitive. In a man it's assumed and admired but in a woman if you really try hard on the court, it's presumed that you are greedy, pushy and a bully. It's much harder for us to play positively.'

(Photographs omitted)

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