Free coaching plan to find next Henman

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The Independent Online

Eight year olds who have athleticism and eye-to-hand coordination are to be offered five years' free coaching by Whitbread, which has launched a £1m development scheme for children at its 35 David Lloyd Leisure Clubs around Britain.

Eight year olds who have athleticism and eye-to-hand coordination are to be offered five years' free coaching by Whitbread, which has launched a £1m development scheme for children at its 35 David Lloyd Leisure Clubs around Britain.

Club membership is not necessary. At each of the leisure centres, coaches will select a squad of eight from the most promising eight-year-olds who turn up for a trial. The 280 children chosen will receive free professional coaching and use of David Lloyd Leisure facilities until the age of 13. The best will then be encouraged to start a tennis career while completing their education.

"What we are looking for is enthusiasm and raw talent," Brian Linskey, the group's rackets manager, said. "It doesn't matter if the children have never picked up a racket before. If they have these qualities, and they are the right age, they could be in one of the squads."

The initiative, which has the blessing of the Lawn Tennis Association, is an example of the type of independent scheme which ought to run parallel with the national governing body's £5m per year Performance Plan organised by Patrice Hagelauer, who played a major role in revitalising the professional game in France.

Hagelauer, who guided Yannick Noah to the French Open title in 1983, believes strongly in the merit of encouraging independent coaches to complement the work of the LTA. His biggest challenge is to persuade the nation's tennis clubs to help the cause. To this end, Hagelauer suggested that the LTA invests £10m per year into a scheme to ensure that young players get competitive tennis at clubs, not social tennis.

David Lloyd sold his leisure centres to Whitbread several years ago, but not before pioneering independent coaching schemes with his Slater Squad, which helped develop Tim Henman, the British No 1, and Jamie Delgado, who won a junior title at the Orange Bowl in Florida and has been a member of the British Davis Cup team.

Whitbread makes the point that David Lloyd Leisure's 510 tennis courts, laid end to end, would stretch for eight miles. The company has more than 200 coaches and over 9,000 children play tennis each week on David Lloyd Leisure's "junior outreach" programme.

The company says that although the courts are busy, the number of people play tennis in Britain has dropped from five million to 2.9 million over the past four years. "We believe," Linskey said, "that the more kids from different backgrounds who play tennis, the more chance we have of discovering the best talent for Britain."

Lloyd went on to establish another chain of clubs, Next Generation. And since his acrimonious dismissal as Davis Cup captain by the LTA after Britain's defeat by the Czech Republic in Ostrava in February, Lloyd has opened two tennis academies bearing his name, in Derby and in Hemel Hempstead.

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