Wimbledon 2013: Number of girl players double on the tennis courts
As Wimbledon opens, the Heather and Laura bounce has hit the young
Paul Gallagher is a reporter for the Independent and Independent on Sunday having joined the group in 2012. He has previously worked for the European Voice, Daily Mirror and the Observer and been based in Brussels, Belfast, Tokyo and London.
Sunday 23 June 2013
The number of girls regularly playing tennis has almost doubled in the past two years, as many fans point to "the Heather and Laura effect". And British stars Watson and Robson are set to inspire more youngsters shortly, as they walk on court to begin their Wimbledon campaigns.
Figures from the Lawn Tennis Association show that the number of Regularly Competing Juniors (RCJs) – those who play at least six recorded matches in competition a year – aged under-8 to under-12, has jumped from 4,200 in 2010 to almost 8,000 last year, with the biggest increases in the youngest category.
The number of 11- to 18-year-old LTA memberships has also risen by more than 10 per cent, to almost 112,000. An LTA spokesman said: "There's no definite reason for the rise in younger girls taking up the game but a lot of people point to the Heather and Laura effect."
The statistics will be a relief to the game's governing body as all eyes turn for two weeks to SW19 and Andy Murray's annual tilt at the title. With just three players in the men's and women's top 100, the LTA faces more scrutiny than ever to improve overall participation.
Sport England, the government body that distributes taxpayers' money to sports, warned the LTA last week that critical funding will be taken away unless it sees an improvement. It is withholding three years' funding, worth £10.3m, as it adopts a "wait and see" policy.
Its director, Phil Smith, said: "The track record of [overall] participation was pretty poor in the last four-year cycle. The LTA presented a plan to us in December that we didn't feel [would] fix the problem."
Weekly tennis participation – over-16s playing for at least 30 minutes – has increased slightly in the past six months, to 424,300, but is still significantly down from a peak of more than 530,000 in 2009.
The LTA has launched a number of initiatives lately – such as 10,000 free rackets for schoolchildren this summer, plus free membership of British Tennis – but there are others promoting the game. Campaign group Tennis for Free runs more than 2,500 free courts as well as free coaching programmes.
The LTA has been set a target of 450,000 weekly participants by January. If that is missed a decision is likely to be made early next year to look elsewhere. Sport England reduced its tennis funding in December from £24.5m to £17.4m over the four-years to 2017 amid fears the LTA was wasting money.
But if Watson and Robson can survive into the second week of Wimbledon, with Andy Murray seeded to make the final, it will ease the pressure temporarily.
Mat Dunkley, head of performance at Riverside Tennis Club in Bedford, said that having role models in female tennis was essential: "It is great to have Watson and Robson as people we can use to encourage participation for girls, but also as examples of what can be achieved when coaching performance players."
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