Tennis coach found guilty of molesting 13-year-old pupil

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The Independent Online

A top tennis coach has been convicted of repeatedly sexually molesting a 13-year-old girl who was her pupil at the Lawn Tennis Association academy.

Claire Lyte, 29, a former professional who began her own playing career at the age of 10, was found guilty of four out of five counts of sexual activity with a child at Liverpool Crown Court.

In recent days the court had heard how the girl's mother had returned home early from a party to find Lyte, from the Shirley area of Solihull, West Midlands, naked and having oral sex with her daughter. The jury – which failed to reach a verdict on a fifth count of abuse – rejected Lyte's claims that the allegations were made up by the "pushy" and "ambitious" mother.

Lyte had worn her pupil's underwear and tennis gear, shared a room with the girl at a hotel in Bournemouth during a tennis tournament, and offered to baby-sit her, the trial had heard.

Judge Nigel Gilmour QC said: "The view I formed... is that the defendant faced an overwhelming case."

The jury of four men and eight women reached its verdict by a majority of 10 to two. On the other charge – which related to having sex at the coach's flat – the jury failed to reach a verdict, and Lyte will not face a retrial. The coach was given bail, and will be sentenced on 2 November.

On hearing the verdict yesterday, Lyte stared ahead in disbelief before sitting with her head in her hands, knowing her career lay in tatters. Outside the court she broke down in tears, comforted by her parents, who sat in court during her trial.

During the case, Lyte's defence portrayed her as a tough and dedicated tennis player and coach who had been offered a job at the LTA academy by the former British No 1 Jeremy Bates.

Lyte's tennis prowess had been spotted at her local club by Warwickshire county selectors, after being encouraged to play by a friend's mother. Lyte then found herself invited to the Bisham Abbey National Tennis Centre, and was propelled into the punishing world of round-the-year tennis tournaments.

By the age of 16 she had turned professional and within three years had broken into to the top 500 ranked players in the world.

However, after developing a reccurring cyst on her wrist that threatened to take her out of the game for up to 18 months, Lyte took a decision that she said she came to regret: giving up her playing career and beginning coaching part-time at the Edgbaston Priory Club in Birmingham.

"I wanted to give something back to the game which had given me so much so I threw myself into coaching," she told the court.

Subsequently voted LTA Young Coach of the Year, she was head-hunted by the LTA Academy to coach the best young players coming through the system.

Within months Lyte had become close to a particular girl – the victim – and the pair spent lunchtimes together in isolated parts of the University of Loughborough campus, the leading sports centre where the academy was based.

The court heard how the coach and her pupil wore similar tracksuits and their hair in similar ponytails. But staff at the academy suspected that their relationship was becoming inappropriate, with Lyte spending time in the child's room when she should have been studying.

In late October 2005, Lyte's colleagues decided to take action, unaware that by this stage that the girl's mother had discovered them in the child's bedroom naked and having oral sex.

However, the relationship continued for some to months before the girl became withdrawn and her tennis began to suffer.

The "final straw" came when the mother found the coach wearing her daughter's tennis clothes in the summer of 2006. The mother's "stomach turned over" and – infuriated by Lyte's "smirking and dismissive" reaction – she approached the police.

After hearing what had happened, the girl climbed on to the roof of her family home, and threatened to commit suicide.

Since the allegations, the LTA has restructured its youth academy scheme.