As Wimbledon prepares to count its millions, the pop singer and tennis fan Sir Cliff Richard is struggling to find a sponsor to help him attract more children to the game. With no sponsor for the last 18 months, his charity, the Cliff Richard Tennis Foundation, set up in 1991, has this year been forced to halve its Tennis Trail programme which introduces the sport to primary schoolchildren in poorer areas of the country.
The need has never been greater, not only because the nation cannot produce a Wimbledon champion, but also because more and more children are so unfit they have difficulty getting through the programme's 20-minute warm-up.
Sir Cliff says: "As is the case with all sports, success in tennis is a numbers game. The more youngsters are encouraged to play the game and grow to love it, the better the odds of finding that special girl or boy who might just make it to the top of the rankings." He firmly believes every child should have the opportunity to play tennis, irrespective of background, colour or creed, and is actively seeking sponsorship to keep the Tennis Trail on course. To do so the foundation need to secure sponsorship of £250,000 a year for the next three years.
Through the Tennis Trail, the charity has introduced more than 300,000 youngsters to the sport. Many are from less privileged inner cities and remote rural areas. More than 3,000 primary schools have been equipped free of charge with mini-rackets, balls and nets, and provided with a follow-on coaching programme.
Two youngsters from the first Tennis Trail of 1992, now in their late teens, are currently playing on the national tennis circuit, receiving aid from the foundation. But this year, instead of visiting 10 schools in each of 20 areas of the country, the programme will visit only 10 schools in each of 10 areas, and there are 15 regions still on the waiting list.
There is no short cut to finding a British Wimbledon champion, says the foundation's director, Sue Mappin, and little point in paying high-profile tennis celebrities to travel the country looking for good young tennis players. "Think of the pressure such a discovery would be under," she says. "This isn't the true development of the game. What is required is an enormous expansion in numbers playing and competing."
Mappin, the former national women's team manager,says: "We target primary schools in poorer areas because private schools have their own courts and parents in upper- and middle-class areas can afford to send their kids to tennis clubs. We go where we are needed; our teams have been up Welsh mountains and alongside Scottish lochs. Rural areas are among the most deprived and neglected for sports facilities. What we are doing is selling tennis to the teachers and the school. It is not a one-off, there has to be ongoing development.
"We do follow-up coaching and estab-lish links with a tennis facility in the area where tennis is affordable. This could be a local park, tennis club or indoor sports centre. Each school gets a package worth around £1,000 of resources, coaching and mini-tennis equipment that can be used in the playground."
Today in schools, she adds, children are lucky if they get half an hour of PE a week. "When they do the warm-up at the start of our session they puff and pant like old men, yet they are only between six and nine. Kids love to run around, but they are not used to doing it any more."
The Lawn Tennis Association, she points out, have not reached children directly in schools, which is something the Trail has always done. They wait for them to join mini-tennis clubs. "We are widening the base of tennis at the grass roots, complementing the work of the LTA. Although they recognise the need for the Trail and welcomes its continuation, we do not get any funding from the LTA.
"In France and Belgium, 30 to 40 kids will be competing against each other in their club with a properly run junior programme where children as young as six and seven can participate. They don't, unlike here, have to travel miles to compete and consequently quickly burn out. I believe this is the reason why we have so few young players in the UK compared with other countries. The base just isn't wide enough, and they feel the pressure far too soon in their development.
"The foundation is still quite young, but we are sure that some time in the future we will have one of our kids playing at Wimbledon. But the sad fact is that if we do not secure further funding we will have to cease this vital support."
Sir Cliff, who has donated large sums to the charity, has been helping to find a sponsor, but without success. He plans talks with the LTA soon.A sprightly 65 this year, the singer says: "At a time when we're hearing so much about child obesity, it is all the more important to get these kids on court, to pass on the tennis bug. They will be healthier for it, quite apart from benefiting from one of the best social sports. Tennis provides the best possible aerobic workout. No gym routines for me, just a couple of hours of whacking tennis balls, ideally with someone who can whack them back harder."