TENNIS: Helping tennis to gain street cred comes

The stuffiest of sports has been trying to change its image.
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The Independent Online
Paul plays tennis. Rather well as it happens. But even nowadays, with Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras recognised as world sporting heroes, his game struggles for some street cred.

In the south London streets around Walworth where he lives, an allegiance to Millwall Football Club is more likely to make you a somebody.

Paul is 16, and in his early years it was so much easier to find a football pitch to play on than a tennis court. He has inked "MFC" all over his tennis cap in a show of loyalty to his roots and is embarrassed when Clive reminds him that once he was reluctant to carry his rackets where he might be recognised.

Clive's problems are of a different kind as he has had to put up with a fair amount of racial myopia. "People take the mickey out of me saying tennis is a white person's game. Then at tournaments some kids say: `Look, there's a black boy, he'll be easy to beat.' I don't hear them say that after I have won."

Today or tomorrow, on the courts inside Spitalfields Market in London, Paul and Clive might get to face Amahl. He has come over from Los Angeles, the first time he has been outside the United States, and has joined 15 other tennis-mad teenagers in London to show that on the eve of Wimbledon the game also has a place in the lives of those with fewer opportunities than most.

The Gerulaitis Grassroots Challenge is what it is all about. Teams representing Soweto, Jamaica, New York, Palo Alto and Madras as well as Los Angeles and London are taking part, and it is something kids can aspire to. You do not need expensive membership fees to join this particular club.

Tennis is fortunate in that most of its leading lights acknowledge and welcome their duty to spread the gospel of the game. Vitas Gerulaitis was one of the first to launch an inner-city programme, and in New York he became a magnet for thousands of young people who otherwise would not have stepped over the baseline.

Since his untimely death last September, the annual challenge competition has become one more tribute to Gerulaitis's memory, but this is in fact the fifth time it has been contested and Richard Evans, BBC Radio's senior commentator at Wimbledon and a former executive with the men's ATP tour, is responsible for making it happen.

Things are improving but still, Evans maintains, tennis is seen as something "that goes on at a country club. We want to take kids off the streets and on to a court and say `this game is for you as well'."

Sight-seeing excursions including Planet Hollywood where the boys will meet some tennis stars, and Wimbledon itself are all part of the trip.

"The cultural aspect is very important and it's great to see kids from, say, Jamaica and Soweto meeting up for the first time and within a day becoming the best of pals," Evans said. "To me, that is almost the best part about it."