THE BLOG

Anyone for Tennis?

20/07/2015 16:29 BST | Updated 16/07/2016 10:59 BST

As Wimbledon finishes tennis courts will experience their usual surge, beginners, children and youngsters inspired by the stars, along with older people spurred on to dust off their tennis racket. But despite the continuing popularity of the Wimbledon tournament in truth the country struggles to maintain current levels of participation.

This is curious given that tennis is accessible to people of all ages and to people with disabilities. Indeed one bright spot is the growth of wheelchair tennis, with stars such as British Wimbledon Champion Jordanne Whiley leading the way. This has led Wimbledon to announce that after a number of years holding doubles events it is to introduce singles competitions from next year.

For many non-playing spectators interest in the sport has been with the elusive search for a British player capable of winning Wimbledon. This led in turn to the tennis authorities making a significant investment of time and resources to develop the elite performance side of the game and encourage and support up and coming players. Increased participation was encouraged, particularly by young people, with the view that by doing so the chances of finding a national champion was increased.

But this focus on elite tennis meant the sport retained the aura of being for the better off, and indeed in some areas it was not accessible to everyone. As an example, in Sheffield a map of tennis clubs shows them clustered predominantly around the wealthier suburbs with nothing but run down park courts in much of the rest of the city. Youngsters from less well-off families can still be put off by the attitude of a number of tennis clubs - including an insistence on a particular dress code. But many tennis clubs do provide family membership fees, or reduced child fees, that mean it is cheaper for a child to play tennis than to go swimming once a week. But you won't know unless you ask, and if you have already been put off . . .

As the financial squeeze on councils grew over many years the local park tennis courts fell into disrepair. To counter this decline the 'Tennis For Free' organisation was set up. One of its founders is the entertainer and tennis enthusiast Tony Hawks, who loudly championed its simple philosophy. If you can take a couple of jumpers and a football and play in the park for nothing why should it cost money to play tennis?

With a relatively small investment a coach can be allocated to a particular tennis venue, and rackets and balls purchased. The coach then has to generate interest and persuade children and adults to come and have a go, hopefully by playing the game some will fall in love with the sport. Generating enthusiasm can in turn lead to a local group of tennis players and supporters who can manage the site with the opportunity for anyone to play for free.

Following the introduction of a new Chief Executive, Michael Downey, in 2013 the Lawn Tennis Association changed its focus much more toward playing locally for fun. There has been improved working with Tennis for Free and the Tennis Foundation, a tennis charity which aims to make tennis accessible and inclusive to all communities. Each summer for the last few years Great British Tennis weekends have been held, with local tennis clubs inviting the public to attend and have a go. However whilst this activity is welcome it has been an uphill struggle as numbers playing regularly have declined.

Most kids - boys and girls - will at some time kick a ball about. We should aim to get them to hit a ball about too. Ensuring that all communities have easy access to courts is important - in France even small villages have their football pitch and tennis court. But it's not just about encouraging children to take up tennis. I got my first racket when aged only 5 or 6 but I still play and expect to do so for at least the next 20 years. I've certainly played with people nearing their 80th birthday - it is that sort of a game. So tempting back adults who stopped earlier in their lives needs to be given greater priority.

Great British Tennis weekends are a good start but more effort is required by all of us who enjoy this sport. The Lawn Tennis Association needs to continue to expand its efforts with local authorities, schools and charities to get more people out there playing tennis, enjoying it and coming back week after week.