Country dancing wins no prizes

We lose at tennis because only rich children play competitive sport. By Chris Blackhurst
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The Independent Online
Tomorrow, two sporting events take place in the London suburbs south of the Thames. In SW19, the Wimbledon tennis championships begin, and a few miles down the road in Surrey, my daughter participates in her annual sports day.

Contrasting contests, but linked. For the first week of Wimbledon, headlines will be dominated by the ritual search for a home-grown winner. If form is anything to go by, players unknown outside British tennis will win a match and their names will appear in big, bold type. Then they will lose, and return to obscurity.

True, this year is a bit different. We have Tim Henman to root for and Greg Rusedski. But, despite the tabloid familiarity and build-up, neither Tim nor Greg has more than a slight chance of winning. As for the other men, they can be dismissed.

The women are no-hopers. I play and follow tennis - or I thought I did, because, for the life of me, I cannot name the best British woman player. (My colleagues on the sports desk tell me she is called Sam Smith, ranked 121st in the world.)

At her state primary school, my daughter will run hard and jump as far as she can, and not win anything. Because nobody wins. At her school, everyone gets a prize. Her sports day is a baffling round of relays and team contests. Even those who come last get a point. If there are potential stars, they do not shine. Tennis is not played at my daughter's school. They do, however, learn country dancing.

At my son's school, another state primary, sports day follows the same formula. My son complains, though, that nobody wins, that the weak bring down the strong. Like my daughter, he finds sports day fun, but pointless. Tennis does not feature on his curriculum either. Nor does football or cricket. But his school also teaches country dancing.

At the local secondary school, on the other hand, there are tennis courts and cricket nets, but a friend has just written to complain that his son, a keen cricketer, has to play with a plastic bat and ball. Only the first or second elevens get to use a leather ball and wear pads and experience the joy of proper cricket.

If that school had its way, all the boys could experiment with the seam, enjoy the resonant thunk of bat on ball, and learn how hard it can feel when it is fired straight at them. The school does not have the money, so most boys must play a game where the ball does not spin, is easy to catch, and never hurts.

It is not merely a matter of staff or facilities. Throughout the state sector, competition through team sports is frowned upon. Personal development, through dancing and gymnastics, is encouraged. Playing fields and tennis courts have been sold off for housing estates and resources for traditional games moved elsewhere.

My children do learn to play tennis and cricket. We pay for them to have group lessons, in the evenings and at weekends. It costs about pounds 75 a term, they need to be ferried there and back and they are often tired before they start. After the lesson, there is still homework to be done. All the children on the courses are the same. Or, put another way, their parents are the same: sporty, keen for the kids to play the game, reasonably well-off. Of the working-class child, oozing ability, there is no glimpse.

While British tennis is still in a trough, other countries produce players from all walks of life, from municipal parks and ghettos, as well as privileged clubs. We do manage to excel in one sport, and that is golf. But that is because golf around the world remains a game of privilege.

Had tennis remained a middle-class activity at the professional level, perhaps we would still produce champions as we did in the 1930s. Our private schools and clubs would have continued to churn out winners. Elsewhere, though, tennis has widened its reach to find children who want, and need, to win. In Britain, as a glance at the administrators at Wimbledon this week confirms, we are locked in a time warp.

Much has been said about the decline of sport in state schools over the past few years. John Major made it a campaigning issue. Next week, Tony Banks, the sports minister, and Steve Cram, the Olympic gold medallist, will launch another initiative, a "new sports challenge for schools". So far, such schemes have proved to be empty words.

At last year's national schools tennis finals only one of the four winning schools was from the state sector. And that school was not typical: Langley Park in Beckenham, Kent, has nine Astroturf and five Tarmac courts; five full-time PE teachers; of a staff of 80 at least 30 take part in extracurricular activities and the school plays sport on Saturday mornings.

Because of this success, Langley Park has been selected by the Lawn Tennis Association for a pilot scheme, involving the local tennis club and the Kent Lawn Tennis Association. A grant of pounds 3m is intended to transform the school into a "centre of excellence" with an indoor tennis centre and five new clay courts.

An official from the LTA visited my own tennis club recently. She arrived in a smart new car belonging to the association and swanned into the clubhouse. She talked with the club's head coach about the club's role in training youngsters, which is creditable, and wanted to know the schools they came from. The coach recommended she visit a school with an especially keen games teacher. The official frowned. There was little point in her going to that school, she said, since it did not have a tennis court. She really did not get the point: her job, and that of the LTA, is to find a way of enabling the children at that school to play tennis - not to write them off because there is nowhere for them to play.

This week, I hope we will be drooling over Henman. He is our best hope of winning anything. When asked why he was able to progress in the sport, Henman was honest: "Probably the most important factor ... was that we had a tennis court at home, and I always had someone to practise with."

If Henman does well, LTA officials will pat each other on the back, and reach for another strawberry. Instead, they should be encouraging new Henmans. They could start by visiting my daughter's sports day and using Henman's success to extol the virtues of competition.