When I was seven years old my dad introduced me to a game called tennis. I'm now 40 years old, still playing, learning and enjoying it. I'm by no means on a par with Andy Murray, but do share similar energy, enthusiasm, determination and commitment.
A few years back, I completed a life-long dream of becoming a qualified coach. This was simply to give something back to tennis and with any luck inspire other people (young and old) to hit a fuzzy little yellow ball.
It's not the glorious job that most people think it might be. I for one know many peers who will challenge all the elements all year round on a lonely court all day long, in order to promote and grow the sport for the love of it.
Last week I met up with Elena Baltacha. 'Bally' as she is known has carried British women's tennis as our No.1 player for the last 10 years, and enjoyed a renaissance over the past three years by shooting back up the rankings, making the Olympics and more recently Fed Cup duty in Israel. She is now working extremely hard to get back on the WTA Tour following six months out after foot surgery (which was rumoured to end her career). Thankfully, this is not the case.
Amazingly, Bally has also planted the seeds for the next generation of British tennis, together with Nino Severino (a top WTA Tour & Olympic Team GB Coach) through the Elena Baltacha Academy of Tennis or 'EBAT in Ipswich', a non-profit organisation established in 2010, targeted at families who couldn't normally afford the opportunity for their kids to 'learn, play and grow the game'.
EBAT is by far more than a one woman marketing brand, it's a fully fledged charity boasting a high standard of coaching professionals that is totally unique in offering pastoral care, sports science, strength and conditioning to name but a few extra's. It prides itself on having the most comprehensive parent/player programme in this country.
That's only the half of it. It's the kids there who make the big difference for me. At present EBAT has approx 70 little tennis gems and that number is increasing fast (with the recent introduction of boys joining the girls). They seem to thrive on how the sessions are played out with total focus and they want to play a big part of it, tell all their friends and can't wait to get back on court again.
The more experienced players assist their younger counterparts with the guidance of the coaching pro's acting as a team of highly skilled mentors going through warm-up exercises, games and setting/clearing up equipment with unbelievable passion and precision.
Agility, balance, co-ordination and learning great technique, together with attention to detail, focus and fun is there in abundance. It strikes you as soon as you walk through the door. I just wish I had all this when I was a kid. Then I really could have been as good as Andy Murray.
As coach Nino says "There is a gold nugget in here somewhere... and I can't wait to find it".
EBAT already has two players who have the potential to go on to bigger things (I've seen them first hand and they really are something special). The academy will no doubt springboard more players with the capacity to learn and play tennis better than the average player and who knows produce future champions.
I truly hope more players will play this amazing sport, enjoy it and have or take the opportunity to excel at it. It's given me a lot since I first picked up my trusty wooden Slazenger racket and I'm far from done.
I know British tennis will get better with the likes of Andy Murray, Laura Robson, Heather Watson currently making waves on the pro circuit, as well as, emerging academies on the same level as EBAT. This will no doubt help contribute to producing quality and strength in depth for British Tennis, which is something that has been seriously lacking for Great Britain in the past.
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