Mark Steel: Sport for all... who can afford it?

It's considered a crime to fund anything properly for free
  • @mrmarksteel

After the drama of last Sunday, this is the country's best opportunity ever to encourage masses of people to play tennis. So, to meet this potential demand, in every area there are courts with only eight or nine potholes on each side so the easiest way to move up to the net is on a mountain bike, and the net itself droops like a net curtain in a house that's been abandoned since the junkies sold the floorboards. And they're behind a huge metal padlocked gate with a massive sign to welcome you with the poem, "If you don't pay, you can't play."

With its lyrical poetic understated menace, it feels as if this sign was probably designed by Mad Frankie Fraser. So if you do try to sneak in a free game, a south London gangster with a rasping voice taps you on the shoulder and says, "One more backhand without coughing up – and I'll cut yer."

They could at least modernise this message now, to go, "Give us your wonga, or your nuts will ache longer, than those hit by Murray attached to poor Tsonga". Over the past 10 years, the number of public courts has declined from 33,000 to 10,000, which you may think doesn't matter, but it's a reflection of the modern attitude to all facilities, in which it's considered a crime against nature to fund anything properly for free. Five-a-side football pitches will soon be subject to VAT as reported in this newspaper today. So libraries are run down or shut, and will start charging with signs saying, "Five quid's what we need or you do not read." And intensive care units will be covered in posters saying, "A tenner plus tip or we rip out your drip."

You could join a tennis club, but most of these are in suburban areas with an exclusive attitude, so an organisation called "Tennis for Free" has been set up (which has a website and everything) by coaches keen to attract kids towards the game who otherwise wouldn't get the chance.

But, like most things that could transform people's lives, it relies on volunteers and charity. And if they asked for public money, I expect they'd be told that would be an affront to the laws of physics and could make the universe snap. And sport should copy the Olympics and get everything privately funded, to the extent that anyone seen running for a bus will probably be told by a steward to stop, as running is an Olympic activity and can only be carried out by those licensed as an official Olympic sponsor, and even they have to follow a route that spells General Electric.

In any case, tennis needs to be reinvented as a sport for the inner cities, instead of represented by Sue Barker who, before the final, asked Andy Murray the incisive question, "Are you excited, Andy"? He could have done so much for his image if he'd answered, "What am I supposed to say to that when your idea of excitement was to go out with Cliff Richard?"