In search of Britain's true tennis soul: Buy your own court and you'll never be idle rich

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The Independent Online
Wimbledon is here again, prompting much dusting-off of aged rackets, squeezing into school whites and a short-lived surge in court bookings. But what of the year-round amateurs who play summer and winter alike, suffering broken bones and tennis elbow, yearning to perfect their technique and fill the yawning gaps in their social lives? Rosie Millard investigates the game's true diehards.

Here's your racket, and have you finished your croissant, darling? asks Nicky Gilmour of her fourth and youngest child, Iona. It is half-term in the Gilmour household and, at 8.30am, legions of children are being organised into activities around the family tennis court in the back garden.

'The court has completely replaced television in our house,' says Mrs Gilmour, whose husband, Ewen, and sons James, 14, Rowallan, 12, and Fergus, nine, are all devoted players.

Mrs Gilmour has on-court activities sewn up. Wednesdays and Sundays are men's doubles, with her husband and three friends. On Saturday mornings, a private instructor arrives to coach the boys (with five other families), and on Thursday afternoons three-year-old Iona and her friends have special short tennis coaching.

'She loves it, don't you, little monkey,' she says, turning to her daughter. 'When all five of us are playing she cycles round and round the court.

'I have only just started playing myself. I am still far too nervous to play a match with my husband, so I play in a ladies' four once a week. At the moment I'm only just able to get the ball over the net. Lots of my friends who don't work have their slots for the court and just turn up. They pay pounds 1 each, half of which we give to a charity for the mentally handicapped.'

The Gilmours live within a ball's throw of Wimbledon's All England Club; they had their Astroturf court laid out in 1987, after the Great Storm flattened several trees in their garden. 'During Wimbledon, we've had stars playing when the weather's been bad.'

At a cost of pounds 27,000 the enterprise was not exactly a snip, but Mr Gilmour, who is head of corporate membership at Lloyds, maintains it is a far better deal than the cheaper but less durable hard court. 'It's all-weather, and we can also use it for cricket practice.'

All this luxury has done nothing to spoil those little rivalries common to matches with your nearest and dearest. 'Mum's backhand is her worst stroke by far,' confesses Rowallan. 'I can easily beat her. Well, I've never played her, but I can just tell. The person I'd really like to beat is my elder brother James; I never have. But even if I did, he'd just probably say he'd had an off day.'

(Photograph omitted)