Three tattered courts with a mixture of tennis, basketball and handball markings; one metal hut that once served as a clubhouse but was vandalised and is now boarded up; fencing that has been damaged or destroyed; and a bunch of menacing kids hanging around after school and smoking dope. Welcome to the future of British tennis.
The scene smacks of downtown Los Angeles, but can be found at the heart of London's affluent borough of Islington. This is meant to be prime New Labour territory, the sort of progressive area where class issues are something that happen in schools. Instead, Highbury Fields offers the perfect example of all that is wrong with tennis in this country. It is billed as one of the Lawn Tennis Association's flagship inner-city clubs, but the facilities are poor, the local children feel largely excluded, and, perhaps most depressingly of all, those who have invested a lot of their time and energy in promoting the game know they are fighting something of a lost cause.
Just ask Rob Achille: "There have been plenty of times when I've felt that a kid had the chance of making it," says the council's development officer, "but I've also known that they were very unlikely to succeed because there is not enough help given to raw talent in this country. Even the ones who are picked out are assisted too late.
"Look at someone like Anne Keotha-vong. She's meant to be the latest bright thing in England, and yet I'm convinced she will have quit the game in 12 to 18 months. She's 21 now, and if you look at the younger opponents she's facing from other countries, she must be wondering whether it's all worth it. The LTA gave her a lot of help at a young age, but the truth is that if kids aren't fast-tracked before they're 12, they have no chance of reaching the top."
The LTA have been slow to react, but they are also reluctant to hand out grants to what they would describe as unproven talents. "And the problem with that," Achille explains, "is that it goes against any logic. The fact is that you have to take a risk and then hope for results; you can't do things the other way around. For too long now, we've been playing it safe in this country. What we need is to invest in some inner-city kids who show promise. Britain desperately needs to find its Williams sisters, although I have to say that's still a long way off."
Herein lies the eternal dilemma facing British tennis. Everyone wants a champion, but no one is really prepared to make the necessary sacrifices to find one. The clubs want money from the LTA but are unwilling to open their doors to the kids, while the LTA want a pool of competitive players but appear reluctant to look beyond the usual middle-class outlets.
Achille is all too aware of the problem. Having been born on the wrong side of the Islington tracks, the 51-year-old was never given the chance to fulfil his tennis potential. His son, too, never quite made the grade.
Perhaps this explains his determination not to let one of his latest protégées, Hannah Torro, go the way of the vast majority of talents in Britain. "Hannah is a local girl, living in a tower block and is from a broken family," Achille says, "and she has absolutely no money to follow her dream. She's 11 and I think she has a very real chance of making it, but the LTA must act now. They feel she's not quite there, but I fear it may be too late by the time they're sure."
The LTA make £30m a year from Wimbledon; Torro needs just £8,000 a year to be given the opportunity of becoming a top-class tennis player.
Achille is clearly disappointed, but refuses to give up. It is not his style. Come rain, snow or bored kids beyond the baseline shouting abuse while smoking dope, he takes his classes on the run-down courts at Highbury Fields. On the face of it, an urban park such as this should provide the ideal setting for unearthing the next (or should that be first?) generation of Top 50 players, but the truth is that the set-up leaves a lot to be desired. Most shocking is the hut that at one time was used as a changing and storage room, before it was broken into by a local gang and destroyed. It is now welded up and requires £15,000 worth of repairs.
Unsurprisingly, Achille believes it will never open again. "It can be a little demoralising once in a while," he says, "but me and my staff have a duty to keep at it, because if we stop, how will the kids play?"
So where does British tennis go from here? "Well, it's by no means ideal, but we have to keep trying to spread the tennis message in the schools," Achille suggests. "I go to every primary school in the borough to persuade kids to come down and have a go. If you don't go to them and make them believe that they, too, can play tennis, then there is no future for the game in this country."
British tennis faces an impossibly steep slope, but with dedicated enthusiasts such as Achille, there may just be a chance of a successful climb.Reuse content