Tennis: Factory method courts favour

Adam Szreter meets the man behind a revolution in teaching tennis to children
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Away from Greg Rusedski's 143mph serving on the Arthur Ashe court at Flushing Meadow another British success story was emerging from the US Open in September. Without a real court in sight, a steady stream of children were visiting the Tennis Factory, where they could hit balls, play rallies and dream Centre Court dreams until they dropped - all thanks to a simple idea hatched in a Harrogate back garden and launched on a budget of pounds 80.

Peter Gray, a PE teacher originally from Newcastle, was attempting to devise rallying activities for his pupils and came up with a simple form of the game to encourage participation in children. The Tennis Factory first appeared at the Nottingham ATP Tour event two years ago, and since then it has been in schools and clubs nation-wide as well as Times Square, Rockefeller Plaza, the Sports Cafe in London and even the Chelsea Bridge rave club Adrenalin Village.

It has also attracted the interest of the Lawn Tennis Association, who plan to incorporate it into their Star Tennis promotional activities next year, as well as leading sports manufacturers such as Dunlop and Reebok, whowere responsible for taking it to New York City.

"It came out of an educational project I was working on," Gray explained. "The idea was to try and take away some of the problems children have when they first step on the tennis court. It doesn't look like your normal tennis court, and the activities and tasks they're doing means they have a lot more success than if they were on a full court area."

Each "rally station" is designed to bring out a different aspect of technique, so there are volley walls, a rebound net, tennis soccer to develop attacking shots, a window system for groundstrokes, high towers for encouraging control over various heights and a service alley. The apparatus is made out of UVPC, the same as a lot of children's playground equipment, and if a school or club shows an interest after a promotional day then Gray provides the rig and organises training for teachers or coaches. To buy a Tennis Factory can cost from pounds 250 to pounds 1,220.

"A lot of coaching is concerned with single hitting and has been fairly shot specific, so what we do is try and give it a playground feel," Gray said. "We're trying to break the mould of tennis. In the past kids have arrived at promo days, they've had a bit of a go but it's tended to be wrapped up looking like tennis with a lot of queueing. What we're after is getting them to have such a buzz that they're going to want to go and find out where they can continue playing the game."

Gray, a former semi-professional footballer, admits that tennis was not his first game, but his teaching days led him almost by accident to where he is now. "I started doing a lot of work with low achievers, the sort of kids who struggle with physical activity. It's always been my aim to make sure you don't have to have high levels of physical skill in order to participate."

Given the exploits of Rusedski and Henman, the timing of Gray's venture has been impeccable, to the point where it has become a full-time occupation. "The profile of tennis in this country at the minute is very exciting," he said. "Not only with the players that we have, but the LTA development programmes are opening a lot of doors.

"The fact that the governing body are now behind it makes it stronger. In the past there tended to be a gap between the clubs and the activity in the schools. But all that's now being so well managed and organised that the opportunities are there for kids of all backgrounds to go out and play tennis. It won't just take two star players, but it helps."