How club game is stifling potential

William Browne, a member of a Sussex club, says British youth must be given a chance
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The Independent Online
Bill and Ben - not their real names - were playing tennis at my local club. Fourteen years old, keen as mustard, their game was highly competitive but also sportsmanlike and generous-spirited.

Half-way through the first set four adults approached. "You're not allowed to play on the grass courts unless you're privileged juniors. Haven't you read the notices? Off you go."

Being polite, reasonable youngsters they went without argument and resumed play on a hard court.

It was an excellent game. At eight o'clock that evening it stood at match point to Bill with Ben to serve. He bounced the ball his usual four times and took a deep breath . . .

"Right, you two. Time to stop. We want this court."

It was the adults. Eight o'clock is the grass courts' bedtime.

"We're on match point," Bill said. "Please may we finish?"

"Haven't you read the notices? Juniors always give way to seniors. Off you go."

The boys went. Ben, in a rare moment of rebelliousness, left the court door open and got a sound ticking-off from the seniors who, as they snapped elastic supports into place and applied spanners to elbow braces, bemoaned the behaviour of young people today.

More recently the same group of seniors spent the day at Wimbledon. When they came back they were full of it. What a wonderful thing it was to see an Englishman, albeit one with a Canadian accent, putting up such a brave show! Why couldn't we produce a world-beater?

Now, in case you think I am making this up, go to your local club and ask staff about their junior policy. Ask what opportunity juniors have to play adults - in serious games. Ask if they run a "privileged junior" system. If they do, what does it take to become one? It should be achieving the same standard as the least able senior player - but it won't be.

And make a special point of asking what chance juniors have to play singles rather than the interminable, mind-numbing doubles matches that pass for sport in the great majority of our tennis clubs.

The hard truth is that Cliff Richard's Search for a Star and Mark Cox's Rover Challenge cannot compensate for the basic sickness in our nation's tennis. Our clubs have let us down. Yet still they benefit from Lawn Tennis Association grants despite being, in many cases, hostile to the future of the game.

But there is some good news for juniors who want to wield a racket. Many tennis clubs have squash sections attached to them. Squash is poor financially but rich in opportunities for young players to explore their potential. Juniors can usually join club leagues and get matches against adults, most of whom seem to enjoy playing youngsters and watching them improve.

Unlike tennis, where all too often a team is the private fiefdom of its captain, squash clubs have ranking systems which lay down who is eligible for what team. "If you're good enough, you're old enough" is a maxim which puts players as young as 12 into regional inter-club leagues. When was the last time you saw a 12-year-old in a meaningful senior tennis team? When will you see such a sight? Don't hold your breath.

So let's stop kidding ourselves. It's not fancy initiatives, however praiseworthy, however costly, that will bring British tennis success. It is a club and county structure that is friendly, welcoming and supportive of juniors. It is a system that challenges and offers them regular singles competition with players better than themselves.

Such a set-up doesn't have to exclude anyone who wants to play social tennis, but it must encourage, not discourage, the likes of Bill and Ben.

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