Read more : Read more : Ryan Shorthouse: July 2008

Tuesday, 8 July 2008

A non-British champion. Again.

Bloody good shot old chap. I think I need some strawberries after that. With a double helping of cream. Hang on though: let me have a little sip of some champers first, just to wet the palate. Oh blow it- pour me a whole glass, we’ll get absolutely bloody wasted on Henman Hill, no Murray’s Mound, whatever it’s called these days.

Wimbledon gets high priority on the social calendar of the middle-classes, alongside the Royal Ascot and the Boat Race down the road in Putters. Hasn’t the weather been nice this year? Perfect for chinos and polo shirts from Ralph Lauren. But the sun finally set on the ambitions of the British in the second week, Murray defeated by the Spanish heavyweight and eventual champion Rafael Nadal in straight sets. Now, once again, we’re all murmuring: why can’t we Brits deliver any champions?

The dream of SW19 is much more accessible to those from comfortable backgrounds. When I played as a youngster, I was lucky enough to have parents who could and would support me as I attended county sessions three times a week 30 miles away. Tennis is an expensive sport. If the All England championship has wet your appetite for the game, you’ll be surprised with just how many financial obstacles there are to actually get playing on a court. The racket and balls can set you back a few tenners at least, and then you have to budget for transportation costs to get to some courts. Most local authorities do not provide tennis courts free at the point of use; at Clapham Common, it costs £5 per hour. Many people are thus excluded from having the opportunity to even pick up a racket. Now think of the enormous commitment struggling parent’s face if they want to give their children the opportunity to regularly play a game they really enjoy. Join a club, get a coach, get the proper kit; many will find this extremely expensive, some will find it completely unaffordable.

Thank goodness for Tennis for Free, a charity run by comedian Tony Hawks. It does what is says on the tin; provides tennis lessons for absolutely zilch. A team of coaches and volunteers, me included, run sessions on public tennis courts each week, giving children and adults the opportunity to have a bash at a sport that may otherwise be too expensive to do. But the charity does not have sites in every area across the country. Something more radical must be done to widen access to the sport.

Want to silence the serial moaners and increase the likelihood of a British champion at the greatest tennis tournament on the planet? Then reclaim public spaces for children in deprived areas so they can hone the skills needed to be a whiz kid on the court and play with a racket and ball without paying a penny for the space. This way you broaden the base of people playing tennis, expanding the talent pool from which a future Federer may be extracted. The children in our poorest communities, often without gardens big enough, sometimes without gardens at all, are left to some of the most dangerous urban spaces to play. Crime, knives and guns are not the stuff of Hollywood blockbusters; they are an everyday reality for these children. Over a decade, injuries as a result of gun crime have increased by 342%. The fear of traffic is endemic, with parents citing this as the main reason for why they do not let their children out to play. Those in the poorest areas are four times more likely to be killed or seriously injured in traffic accidents than their affluent peers.

Children are extremely creative. Give them some space on the street and they only need some old rackets, the ball the dog’s half-chewed and some old jumpers to make Centre-Court at Wimbledon. But too many are denied the opportunity to do this simply because of the deteriorated and dangerous public space available to them. Sensible parents of course keep their children indoors, unintentionally depriving them of the opportunity to play. For the sake of social justice and for the sake of widening the talent pool of potential tennis champions, we must therefore create child-friendly communities. That means more visible policing; that’s police who patrol our streets instead of being strangled by needless paperwork. And, more radically, it means a new national speed limit of 20mph on all side residential roads, which would not only reduce the number of children killed in road accidents by an estimated 70%, but also increase parental confidence in public spaces so their children can get outside and play.

Let’s remember that tennis isn’t just played on the grass courts of the All England Club. The urban spaces across cities also have the potential to be the domain of future British champions.