I wrote last week about the state of British tennis mainly because its where I have been for most of my life. It seems to me, though, that tennis in general is suffering. In Germany clubs struggle, Berlin is not the hive of activity on the court it use to be. The US cannot produce players and haven’t since the Sampras/Agassi era in the mens game, which is quite some time back. The ladies are doing ok but clinging on to the Williams sisters who really won’t be around much longer. Australia, that once massive tennis nation is just a small player now on the world circuit and still look to old faces like Hewitt. France, Spain and Eastern Europe is where it seems to be right now but even in those countries there are problems.
My question is what has happened to those nations that once dominated? There are many theories you can read about if you just google the subject. The stance in the US is the centralised programme, lack of funds coming down to coaches and so on. In the UK everyone will blame someone else. Roger Draper took the brunt of this in recent years but under his leadership there was an awful lot of good happening. Perhaps just not radical enough and a bit of overspend! But then a political figure like Roger is never going to go the whole way. Now we have someone else to blame in 5 years time.. And I can’t even tell you who it is!! One area, however, with room for massive improvement is our parks.
Steve Riley of Willtowin is making major inroads in London but not without a battle against tradition.
I believe there is much more to it than simple blaming. In recent years I have been involved in many of the fringe sports. The new sexy ones that cost little and appeal to kids. They are riskier too and with branding such a big part of our lives, these sports have flourished and kids love them.
Take surfing. If you live near the coast in the UK – and there is a whole lot of it being an island – its easy to get started, very cool and costs very little. City kids can pick up Parkour, skate boarding and BMX all relatively cheaply and become local heroes in the process. With the rise of YouTube and channels like EpicTV, video shorts are being uploaded by the thousands daily, what do you think the kids watch and aspire to?? Its certainly not a few points of Nadal, Federer or Djokovic. More likely it will be some kid hanging off a crane in Russia, skateboard videos from LA, Barcelona or London, or some crazy biker in the Scottish Highlands getting 28m views. Others doing unbelievable jumps and downhills that make Evil Knievel look like a beginner. Well, I suppose he was really, he started something that RedBull have turned into a multi billion business.. Now take a look at the Barclays ATP Tour Finals youtube views. Nothing short of embarrassing with 70-120,000 for matches and 4 or 500 for interviews. For a world sport this should not be the case.
Even Ultra running is now sexy with some achieving feats never believed to be possible. Runners doing 100 mile races over mountains keeping sub 3hr marathon times throughout and others summiting some of the toughest world peaks with nothing other than a water pack. Yoga is also now making inroads with the young and can be found in schools and cities everywhere
The answer to making tennis this sexy or appealing is tough. In some ways it just isn’t. I even pitched it to EpicTV but they just couldn’t go there. Somehow, though, it has to change and perhaps the only way is to introduce the concept of variations. Not in the core sport but to build on the easier more accessible possibilities like paddle tennis. In Venice Beach, this sport has grown massively along side the skate boarders, and bikers. It’s competitive, tough and sexy. And you can get more people playing on your real-estate so makes better business sense.
I would love to see tennis back where it should be. Its a truly beautiful sport that teaches us so much more in terms of life skills. And we need some of the young pure talent taking it up to ensure its survival through the generations. If we don’t we run the risk of tennis becoming that sport you take up in your retirement..
As the first Grand Slam of the year is about to start, my mind turns a little towards the sport I have been associated with for 45 years of my life. I played until I was 42, coached and ran my own school until 7 years ago and through a series of events I dropped tennis out of my life. I’d had enough and it was time to follow directions and passions that had always been running alongside but but were now more important.
After around 3 years of no tennis I began to play during time spent in LA and it was pure pleasure. Sun, nice courts everywhere and availability to everyone of every level. And it was for me that I played. This was when I really started thinking about tennis and the state of the game in the UK.
For the last 3 or 4 summers in England I played a few times with my teenage daughter at the local courts which again was fairly easy. I had tried to speak to my local Club in Haslemere but to use their courts I had to join, which to play only a few times through the summer was pointless. So we played on the courts next to the club which were the same quality and for public use. But this was not always so easy either. On a number of occasions we would go down and the club had taken these over for their junior tennis. This is simply not right. Open your doors and operate in an open way or close them and stay private. And DON’T take public time. Cake and eat it comes to mind.
More recently I have found the bug again to play more. I have even tooled up with new rackets. I have hit a few times over the last months and my desire is really back. I am getting better, the feet are moving again and overall I am so happy to be playing this great sport. But the bit that really hinders my return to the game on my terms is our system.
Firstly I approached my old club Woking and they agreed to allow me to play there without joining as I wasn’t sure how for how long I would continue. Not long after this agreement, they returned with a call saying that it was not possible on this basis as it would set a precedent they were not comfortable with being a members only club.
What I would like to point out is that over the 20 years I have known this club, they have received funding for 4 acrylic courts, further funding/support for two porous acrylic courts. 8 courts with floodlighting also supported with grants and free loans from the LTA and further funds for the club house. Much of this funding was a direct result of the programme I owned there. This is not unique to Woking but happens at many of the 2500 clubs around the UK who then close their doors to the public. Ouch, thats a lot of funds given out to private members clubs.
Given that I can no longer play there unless I find £465 to join I decided to phone around. I know most of the local facilities and have managed to find the Guildford Tennis Academy where I can book without being a member. In the process, I found numerous clubs I knew of all with good funded facilities but none that would allow play without joining.
I am a player so I knew where to start but what about those who do not play and just wish to find a court and play; to give it a go and maybe book some lessons or join a group? For me its relatively easy but still I had trouble. Whilst I was in LA, over about 4 days I found 5 or six first class facilities I could book freely. Either with another coach, a list of players I found on a board and through an online site. It was so easy. France is the same and finding somewhere to play is not a problem. In fact most of Europe is like this.
I am not in LA now, I am here. And I am loving tennis again but the system is not fit for the job. Currently there are around 2500 members clubs that the system works with. The LTA have lots of information on how to play and get started but this is relatively useless if you just want to pay and play.. If we are to start finding players we have to make the sport more available.
I do not think that a club should be forced to open its doors, however, I do believe that if a club receives any support whatsoever from the governing body (LTA), they should then be contractually bound to open its doors for at least its off peak times. In general people will take a punt and book a court for £8-15 and if its in a nice facility they will certainly enjoy the experience. Public courts can be an attraction also and really should receive the lions share of the money that comes form Wimbledon each year. This way tennis becomes affordable and easy to play. Then we start to see progress. Clubs that don’t “play ball” should receive nothing, and I can assure you many would be closed down. Forcing them to open up to public bookings would allow so many empty courts to be filled and clubs to boost their revenues. I suppose it will get up the nose of some of those lofty wankers who wish to remain members only but then they should not accept or be offered funding or interest free loans. And with these loans they are very often not paid and written off.
I don’t believe the solution is a difficult one but would take a concentrated effort and mean upsetting a few of those firmly entrenched in the establishment. The LTA has now got itself a new “head of state” so it would be nice to see them setting a few rules for funding that allow people access. Or just not fund. It would also be apt to go back historically and set rules with clubs that have in the past seen injections of cash. Why should these facilities then be only available to those who wish to be part of a private club or those who can afford it. The very people who believe they are doing so much for tennis are in fact hindering progress and limiting exposure of a great sport.
it will be interesting to see how we get on at the Australian Open over the next two weeks but other than Andy Murray we don’t have much there. And his success was outside the system too. As was Henmans’s.
All Images are copyright Mark Gillett.
I drive and ride my bike daily. I drive into London. I drive my daughter to school. I ride my bike to save on fuel, keep fit and most importantly I feel the total freedom when I unstrap it from my car and set off.
Over the last months I have noticed, more than ever, the increasing number of “white vans” on the roads. They tower above me whether I am on my bike or in my car. They approach behind tailgating with only inches to spare when I am in my car without any regard for the fact they could not pass as there is another car in front of me and another in front of that and so on. When I am on my bike they cut me up, squeeze me so close to the curb, hoot me, pass within inches of my elbows and I know they see me. I can see them looking at me in their mirror, usually gesticulating!
In recent weeks, I have experience a new and amusing development in their evolution. They seem to come with a passenger hanging out from the off-side window as a standard feature. Maybe it’s an upgrade? This passenger shouts abuse at almost everything it passes, and that happens to be me fairly often at 7.30am on the roads of London. Only last Friday was I jolted from my traffic jam haze by the screams of one of these “white van passengers” to get off my phone!!! Funnily I was not on it so assumed the screaming, crew cut Nigel Farage supporter must have been confused with the light that comes from the Parrot device on my dash. Poor fellow! The van moved further forward and he continued the abuse from afar and then started directing it at another car too..
Our roads have now become so infested with these vans, that I cannot imagine what they all do? Is it that the haulage companies have found a way to reduce their fuel bills and so split each load between 6 vans? Have the motor companies that produce them started selling at cut down prices to the Millwall football supporters? (I photographed on the sideline of a Millwall match a few years back, so I know what I’m talking about) or has Nigel Farage done a deal with with Ford, Iveco, Renault and the plethora of other companies vying to produce models for the British roads, where for supporting his party they get massive discounts? Whatever the reason I would really love to know as there now seems to be a massive imbalance between normal traffic and white vans. They have even taken over from the 4×4 school drop off mum in those same areas….
Anyway, just to sum up, Im not in the slightest bit prejudice, I never generalise and I do lots of research… Apparently they are worth a whopping 35 billion to the economy.. Perhaps they should be running the country!?
I have now been cycling at some point each week in London for 18 months and my initial impressions are coming under a certain amount of questioning. Here is the first blog I posted about it.
I remember being impressed with the number of people I saw running with packs, running without, cycling or just generally being active. Cyclists seem to be everywhere and the lanes at certain times of day were packed. There is not much change in this and I am still impressed to a degree but having now seen the active commuting scene in London for over a year I have come to the conclusion that really not many people cycle to work.
I saw this article yesterday on the BBC website but didn’t yet read it. I generally don’t as I looked at the pictures, read the headline and pretty much new what it was about. However, it made me think about our “lacking” cycling scene and I have intended to post for a while about this. Referring back to the pictures on the BBC article; Where do you ever see this many bikes in London? You don’t. Where are the cargo bikes of parents taking their kids to school? There aren’t any. Where are the cyclists when it rains? Most are in buses, cars or on the already overcrowded tube which is such a shame. Even though we have access to the best waterproofing ever designed. And really rain is so beautiful once you are out in it. Read the rest of this entry »
I am constantly bemused by the lunacy that confronts me each time a travel through Heathrow Airport. I don’t think it would be nearly so bad if my experience was the same at each of the airports I travel through but its not. No matter where I am, the security checks are simple and respectful. Heathrow? Well, they are just unbelievable. Each of my last 3 or 4 journeys my bag has gone through the “extra check” line where it gets taken for a good swabbing and total empty out. Early on in the experience I was told it was the hard drives and camera and it was best to take them out with the laptop. So my next trip I did exactly this and in anticipation of a clear walk through I was again disappointed. I got stopped. So now I begin to get agitated and question why again?.
“Well, sir we need to check”
“Yes, but why?”
“Because you have cables sir.”
“Err, they are earphones, what on earth might you find in there?”
she ignores me and the search goes on, she searches my bag and returns and after 10 minutes I am on my way.
My next experience;
“Sir can I please have a look in your bag?”
“Do I have a choice then?”
“Well, you can say no but I will look anyway.”
“So, why are you asking me if you can look then?”
“Sir, I have to look in your bag! Can I please take a look”
“But Im going to have to have a look!”
“Thats fine but don’t ask me if you can look if you are going to look anyway.. Just take a fucking look!”
“Please don’t swear at me sir!”
“I didn’t swear at you, I swore, period!”
The search happened and after 15 minutes of wasted time I went on my way… A few more times I had similar experiences and one really nice indian lady who apologised profusely before the search but said she had to, so I just kept my mouth shut and smiled. However, this last one took the biscuit.
I arrived at T5 checked in with no more than hand baggage, got to security and took out my laptop, cables, earphones, hard drives and anything that might matter. By bag gets selected again!!
“Please, please, tell my why my bag is being searched?”
She ignores the question and asks if there are any object that might hurt her in the bag so I ignore her. She asks again to which I said “no” so she opens the bag and empties it out. “Will you please tell me why the search?” I emptied everything out that could possibly perceived as a bomb or determine that I am a jihadist! Please?”
“Its liquids sir” she said tersely.
“What? What liquids?”
“Excuse me? Thats a tube of toothpaste 2 inches long!” She then took it out put it in a plastic bag and ran it through the machine again. It was a miniature travel tube!
I have come to the conclusion that the UK Airport security services probably all share the same brain cell. It is not rocket science when determining who might possibly be a danger, who really cannot be a danger and who might be a grey area. No other airport except American, of course, do I ever have such an experience. I am now on my way back to Heathrow which of course, will not be a problem but I really don’t know what to do next time. I think I will put each item in a plastic bag of its own, empty everything out at the X-ray machine, take three of the big trays and just see what happens.
This is my cut after hearing the music one evening at the end of an episode of “A Person of Interest” on Netflix. It’s a great track.