Sports Letter: A level playing field will allow junior tennis players to progress

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From Richard King

Sir: May I tell you of another Sussex tennis club, our club, which is at the forefront of a different attitude towards junior players. By the sound of your contributor William Browne's club, it is one of the county's larger clubs where grass courts still rule, with macadam courts as back- up.

In 1989, the Lawn Tennis Association produced a Court Surfaces Policy, which recognised that the court surfaces in Britain were not conducive to producing outstanding players, and that cement and clay courts were the way forward.

At that time, our club had six grass and three hard courts. Six years later, with much financial assistance from the LTA, we have two cement courts and two newly installed clay courts. The two remaining grass courts, with all their dependence on the vagaries of the British summer, could well be living on borrowed time.

Of course, the LTA do not just dole out their annual Wimbledon windfall with their eyes closed and hope for the best. Strict conditions are attached to our loans and grants with regard to subscriptions, sinking funds and coaching. One result is that each weekday evening there are several hours of junior priority on the four best courts, likewise on a Saturday morning.

Nevertheless, the sort of confrontation between seniors and juniors described with appropriate horror by William Browne does not occur. When a triumphalist LTA spokesman said last week that by the year 2000 it would be juniors throwing seniors off court in our clubs, I think he struck the wrong note. There is no need for a hierarchical system, such as "privileged juniors", providing the club spirit is right.

Here, juniors of adequate standard have always been able to play with seniors, partly because so many of them have tennis-playing parents. Providing a club can generate such a family atmosphere, integration becomes a natural progression as each child grows stronger, in both physical and playing terms.

William Browne asks the last time you saw a 12-year-old in a meaningful senior tennis team. Three weeks ago, two less than outstanding 13-year- old boys played together in our men's fifth team. A pair of 14-year-olds are pushing for a place in the third team. And then there is Lotti, just turned 15, who is too good by far to play in the ladies' first team - she just plays singles with the club's top men. Thanks, at least in part to practising on our cement and clay, she is now shooting up the national junior rankings.

Our 19-year-old club professional, Marcus, is inundated with work, as we have found that the best way to accumulate members is to allow them to have regular lessons before having to decide whether they want to join the club.

We no longer insist on wearing whites - another discouraging factor to junior aspirants - and rules are kept to a minimum. Other clubs may interpret this as laxity, but we have a spirit of tolerance which I hope meets William Browne's criterion for a club "friendly, welcoming and supportive of juniors."

As for a system that offers juniors regular singles competition with players better than themselves, it seems that the LTA's national rating system has yet to penetrate his club. We run three-week long ratings tournaments each year for juniors, which offer just such opportunities, plus a 16- day one for all ages, which I am in the midst of refereeing while writing.

The ratings system also provides for meaningful challenge matches to take place within the club; here, some 60 players have ratings, so there is plenty of scope for the junior to progress. To talk of the basic sickness in our nation's tennis is to look only at his club's side of the coin; travel along the coast and we can show you what is going on, on the other side of that same coin.

The LTA is now heading in the right direction, but can the British temperament handle a more dictatorial attitude? Dare I suggest that juniors should be banned from playing matches on grass and artificial grass courts? Then we can start to take on the Continentals and the Americans on a level playing field.

Yours sincerely,

RICHARD KING

The Green Lawn Tennis Club

St Leonards-On-Sea, E Sussex

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