In search of Britain's true tennis soul: Wanted: a Becker from Brixton

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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.

Ferndale Tennis Courts are in the heart of Brixton, overshadowed on one side by the huge Ferndale estate and on the other by the BR commuter line to Victoria. Built by the council six years ago, the four courts - off-peak 60p an hour - share a site with two six-a-side football pitches and a running track.

They are also the practice courts for Inner City Tennis Focus, a project founded by John Sloan, a television researcher, which aims to provide coaching and support for local players and to draw a champion from south London within the next six years. 'There are many athletes around here who would make great players; they need to be exposed to the game and encouraged,' says Mr Sloan.

One of the regulars is Richard Brown, 20. A part-time assistant in Selfridges' food hall, he was of a high enough standard to compete in this year's Volkswagen Tournament and the pre-qualifying rounds for Wimbledon.

'I started playing at the age of 10,' says Richard, who grew up in Brixton. 'None of my school-friends played tennis; in fact, they used to laugh at me because they thought it was a sissy sport. But I was inspired by watching McEnroe on television, and my mother encouraged me. She bought me a McEnroe Maxply racket.'

He began to play regularly on courts in Brixton's Brockwell Park, wearing 'tennis shoes from Tesco and my school PE kit'. Even though he sped through the county ranks, Richard concedes his presence on the circuit was something of an anomaly. 'When I played my first tournament, heads turned. It was so unusual to have a black kid out there. People would come and see if I could play, and ask me why I wasn't playing football. It did offend me, I must admit.'

Richard's job earns him pounds 150 a month, but keeps him from daily training. 'I do feel angry. I feel if the Lawn Tennis Association had given me a chance, I could have made it. They said I had to be a national player to gain assistance; but I used to be national standard and they still turned me down.'

He still loves the game, however, and hopes his example will inspire others at Ferndale. 'I'm coaching here three times a week, trying to get younger people to achieve what I couldn't. Hopefully we'll find a champion from Brixton.'

(Photograph omitted)