Money and McEnroe help British cause

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The Independent Online

The Lawn Tennis Association, which would be overjoyed to find five players to take on the world, never mind 15, was encouraged for two reasons yesterday.

Firstly, a cheque for £25.8m arrived, the annual pre-tax surplus from the Wimbledon Championships, to be used for the development of the British game. The sum is a £200,000 increase on last year.

Secondly, John McEnroe arrived at Queen's Club to conduct a training session with a group of junior players. McEnroe, a New Yorker who, as a youngster, played the round ball code of football, inevitably chose the motivational value of England's inspiring triumph in the Rugby World Cup as his theme for the day.

The LTA hopes to persuade McEnroe to become a frequent visitor in a campaign to invigorate the pursuit of excellence - in McEnroe's words: "Put a bit of fire in the bellies of the players." Cross-pollination may help the LTA's quest to attract more young people to the sport. Jonny Wilkinson, indisputably the "Big W" of the day, attended Wimbledon this year. Wilkinson, a tennis enthusiast, was invited to the LTA's Kid's Zone, where he hit with the children and signed autographs and posed for photographs.

Although tennis is an individual sport, some tenets are all-embracing. McEnroe spoke to the LTA's young hopefuls about the importance of playing the big points: "How good are you when it comes down to the wire?" The image of Wilkinson's drop goal came to mind.

McEnroe said he hoped the British youngsters who hit with him would be inspired in the same way that he was inspired by hitting with his idol, the great Australian Rod Laver. "That was huge for me," McEnroe said.

His nine students yesterday - Miles Casini, Ross Hutchins, Richard Wyre, Matt Lowe, Niki Peel, Josh Goodall, Jonathan Marray, David Sherwood and Andre Banks - gave him their full attention.

John Crowther, the LTA's chief executive, says the governing body's grass roots development programme will succeed. He is delighted that the number of children aged from four to 11 playing tennis has increased by 81 per cent over the past year.

"Our task now is to keep those kids in the game," Crowther emphasised. "We've got to make sure that tennis is a cool sport." A Sport England grant of £750,000 earlier this year will help to link tennis clubs and schools.

The annual surplus donated by the All England Club to the LTA appears to be levelling off as a consequence of decreasing overseas television revenue and increasing insurance premiums for the world's most prestigious tennis tournament.

First passing the £1m mark in 1981 - the year the turbulent McEnroe did just about everything except pick up the ball and run with it - the surplus rose to a peak of £33m in 1998, tapering to £25m for the past two years.