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Britain needs to change its approach to junior tennis

Jack Turley August 31, 2020
Britain needs to change its approach to junior tennis

If Britain wants another Andy Murray, adult club members need to change their attitude towards junior tennis players. 

British tennis fans have lived through a golden age of grand slam champions in recent years. Andy Murray is, of course, the stand-out performer. Along with his two Wimbledon trophies and a US Open title, he is also the only man ever to have brought his country successive Olympic gold medals in singles. 

But it’s not just Andy. His brother, Jamie, Heather Watson, and Joe Salisbury have all won doubles grand slam titles in recent years. 

Boosting junior tennis players’ participation

However, at the height of our elite successes, the LTA was warned of losing government backing unless they improved participation numbers.

After football and rugby, tennis is the third most watched sport in the UK. But in terms of participation, it languishes behind far less exhilarating activities like golf, badminton, boxing, swimming, and even running (which is literally just other sports without the fun parts). 

A child playing tennis. Photo credit: Unsplash

In fact, by naturally lending itself to social distancing, tennis should be seeing a boost right now. 

So, why aren’t more people playing tennis? Are juniors really mistreated? And should we expect another Andy Murray anytime soon? 

Tennis has a lot to learn from other sports 

I coach a school football team. The boys rock up to both football training and their fixtures excited to play, and free to express themselves as kids. 

On the pitch, imagining they’re Messi or Ronaldo, they might try a skill when they should have passed, or throw a strop when they should have worked harder. But a moan from their teammate or a half-time substitution is about the worst they get. 

The key is that no one treats them like second class citizens purely because of their age. Instead, that’s factored into their management. 

Go to most tennis clubs in Britain and the situation is the complete opposite. 

A stuffy, unwelcoming atmosphere  

My experience as a junior tennis player was one of regular reprobation from senior members at whichever club I played. Despite my polite and unassuming nature as a child, I was constantly made to feel uncomfortable. 

Whether it was demanding to see a shoe tag (which was always present), or being kicked off a court (which I’d always booked), older members have an inexcusable attitude problem towards young players. Go look at many other sports and kids simply don’t have to deal with such rubbish. 

A group of tennis players. Photo credit: Unsplash

The pinnacle of my junior career was competing at SW19 in the Road to Wimbledon finals. Even here, an unfriendly adult found fault in a thin black stripe on my trainers, marring my otherwise all-white outfit. It took my mum to explain we were not in a financial position to buy another new pair of shoes for this one tournament before I was allowed on court. (Elite tennis authorities’ disdain for all but the wealthy is a separate topic also worth addressing.)

Before writing this, I reached out to the tennis community to see if I was the only one who noticed this. As it turns out, my experience is not an unusual one. Juniors being treated poorly and kicked off courts by self-righteous adults is prevalent across the country. 

Clubs banning younger members from grass courts was a common theme, even for players preparing for junior Wimbledon! Probability tells us that the adults restricting kids’ access are likely the very same people watching Wimbledon, tutting away as the last British hope goes out in the second round. 

No progress

Returning to tennis clubs as an adult (and often coaching) now, it is disappointing to see that little has changed in the last 10 years. Recently, I saw a head coach remove two junior members, who had only joined the day before, from a court. The reason? Some adult members wanted to play on that specific court. This, despite 10 other courts being available, many of the same surface. Aside from the illogic of the request, the coach’s tone was abrupt, condescending, and saddest of all, not at all surprising. 

This culture is a disgrace, and widespread change is desperately needed. 

It’s simple: more kids will want to play the sport if they’re made to feel welcome at tennis clubs.

Outdated systems 

This toxic environment persists because tennis clubs are not equally represented across generations. Decisions are made based on committee meetings where the average age could make bowls or bingo seem like vibrant and youthful communities. Committee pressure leads venues to remove performance surfaces like clay and acrylic in favour of senior-friendly astroturf, on which zero top level events are played. 

A further issue is that the LTA’s website is archaic, and nigh impossible to navigate even for someone like me, who has used it since childhood. This, fittingly, doesn’t affect those adults who hold such disdain for juniors, since most still renew their LTA membership via carrier pigeon. 

Photo by sanjiv nayak on Unsplash

Entering a tennis tournament should be as easy as doing an ASOS shop, or ordering Nando’s. Right now, it isn’t. So, instead of getting kids involved in competitive tennis, it’s all too easy for them to pass time scrolling social media, buying clothes, and ordering takeaways. 

For the LTA, updating systems that promote tennis to kids should be an easy fix. Changing the culture of mistreating juniors is trickier. 

Proposed solutions

Before we can hope for another Andy Murray, tennis needs to address its generational problem. 

Below are a few ideas for improving generational equality in British tennis. Share them with your tennis friends and the local LTA department if you think they’re any good. 

  • Adults love the social aspect of club team tennis. Keep those adult members who have nothing better to do than picking on kids busy: get them running a junior team. They’ll soon realise children aren’t the bane of the sport, but the future of it. 
  • Have teenagers and young adults on committees. Juniors need representation when decisions are made. 
  • Start LTA funding incentives to have at least one in every five club tennis courts as a performance surface. (The all-weather excuse is nonsense – go to most clubs on a rainy day and they’re half-empty, anyway.) Then, prioritise these courts for juniors. 
  • Improve the LTA website. Build a usable app. Consult experts from Snapchat or Instagram or ASOS. Start from scratch, make it easy, anything but the current mess. 
Photo by Zahra Rafiei on Unsplash

We need to continue the conversion, take action, and help get more kids enjoying themselves on the tennis court. If we want more grand slam champions, grassroots club level is the best place to start. 

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J E Turley is a novelist and freelance writer. To read more about his novels, or about living with Crohn’s and Colitis, head to jeturleywriting.co.uk.