The Wimbledon roar may have been muted with a return to its former tranquility but the laborious assignment to augment the sport’s reputation continues for the Lawn Tennis Association.
Prior to the prestigious championships getting started at the All England Club, I wrote that the LTA needed Andy Murray to make a ‘racquet’ to aid the organisation’s plight in its bid to maintain the financial support pledged by Sport England.
Well the 26-year-old did just that on Centre Court, claiming an achievement of historical significance when beating number one seed Novak Djokovic in straight sets to become the first British male champion since Fred Perry in 1936. Now the LTA can respond and work on the back of that legacy, enjoyed by the largest television audience of the year which peaked at 17.3 million.
That got everyone talking about tennis, now the LTA is devising a structure to get people playing tennis. Funding has already been reduced from £24.5m to £17.4m for the four years up to 2017 and a further £10.3m will be pulled if participant figures fail to improve by December.
But there’s plenty of angles being explored and a plethora of opportunities being created. Paul Bennett, LTA operations manager for the North, is confident that the government body’s expectations will be met.
With such a significant incentive providing the inspiration, the LTA has targeted schools in hope of encouraging youngsters to become immersed in tennis. In unison with the Tennis Foundation they’ve delivered teacher training and free equipment to more than two million children in over half the schools in the country.
“The indications from the feedback we’ve already had from local clubs, indoor tennis centres and parks suggest that we’re getting more inquiries and more people seem to be playing,” he said.
“We’ve gone through quite a switch over the last six months or so working with Sport England and we’ve put a lot of focus on trying to take tennis in to local communities and local parks to try and extend the infrastructure.
“A lot of work has already started in trying to get our itinerary up and running in schools as well. Murray’s success could be the catalyst and he’s put tennis more in the spotlight. That gives us more chance of pushing people towards things that are being organised.”
Scott Reid, Lancashire’s tennis development manager, lauded the success of the AEGON schools programme where 40 schools in Burnley have benefitted from £20,000 worth of free resources.
He added: “There is also on-going support to local clubs. Burnley TC in particular has a thriving programme offering opportunities for all ages and abilities and has extensive links with local schools.”
But that’s not the only tactic being employed as they look to spread the net. A nationwide talent ID network has been set up plus they’re supporting coaching programmes for the best junior players in performance centres up and down the country.
The LTA says the signs at junior level are encouraging: Oliver Golding won the US Open boys’ title (as Murray did) in 2011 and Kyle Edmund reached the semi-finals of the Wimbledon boys’ championships this year. Two years ago, the British juniors also won the Davis Cup. Meanwhile, in the women’s game, Laura Robson also excelled, another athlete for aspiring tennis players to identify and relate with.
“We’re buoyed that there is role models coming through the tennis system and that success has been portrayed in the media which is quite a positive step for us and could encourage more people to play,” Bennett said. “We’ve have got a successful network and competition structure that these players have come through and benefited from.
“The basement structures are in place and are working now. Also with 17 million people watching and a large part of that audience being women, they’ve got a great role model in Laura and that could play a part in getting young girls playing.”
Finally, a summer and autumn drive has been initiated which includes the ‘Tennis Is’ campaign which looks to entice around 1.5 million people to play more frequently rather than sporadically. And with the website www.allplaytennis.com, which has seen almost a 100 per cent increase in browsers since the start of the grass court season, the public can find somewhere to play in their local area and someone to play with.
“It’s down to awareness and we’ve launched a national marketing campaign called “Tennis Is” which is a lot of bespoke literature and information to improve awareness about where local tennis facilities are on website,” Bennett said. “That’s one of the biggest barriers in that people don’t know where to play or how to play. A key part of our work is to improve that.
“We know there’s lots more work to do. Sport England is pleased with the progress we’re making and with the approach that we’re making so if we continue with that trend we’re confident of making that figure.”
Bennett added: “To play at recreational level tennis is not an expensive sport. The average adult membership fee is £1.20 a week and for juniors it’s as little as 85p per week. A lot of the park courts, particularly in the North, are free.
“There is a myth that tennis is expensive but at recreational levels it’s very competitive with other sports.
“If we keep doing the simple things right and building on the momentum then we’ll see an improvement.”