Anyone For Free Tennis?

By London_Duncan Last edited 198 months ago
Anyone For Free Tennis?

That racquet has lain dormant in your cupboard for 50 weeks now, but you know at the back of your mind that, before this week is out, the temptation to imitate the grace of Sharapova or the swashbuckling of Federer on your local patch of grey concrete will be near irresistible. The start of Wimbledon signals the only fortnight in the year when you couldn't walk on there any time you like, the sight of grass of which Lothlorien would be proud finally luring us out.

Not that you'll find any public grass courts, obviously. In fact, chances are you won't even find a net or tarmac devoid of a healthy dose of weeds. In these market driven days you may well have to travel a long way and queue or else fork out a hefty membership fee to put those Wimbledon dreams into action. So why are the capital's public tennis facilities so sparse and why are so many in such a poor state of repair?

There are plenty of answers to be found in a fascinating document produced by the London Assembly in January 2005 called simply, "Tennis in London":

Using the Wimbledon Championships as our starting point, the Committee investigated how this world famous tournament can help to promote tennis at a grass roots level within the capital. We also considered access to tennis courts in London, highlighted projects which encourage young people to get involved in tennis (such as the Westway Tennis centre), and examined how the Mayor, Sport England and the LTA can encourage more Londoners to pick up a racquet.

The report starts off with some interesting statistics. An estimated half a million people play tennis in London, about a third of them regularly, on around 2,000 courts, half of which are owned by clubs and the other half by local authorities. The Lawn Tennis Association reckons two thirds of the nation's local authority owned courts are in "a state of disrepair".

The main obstacles to sorting out that particular issue are portrayed as cost-effectiveness and the difficulty of getting London boroughs to act togther on sports initiatives in general. Experience in the USA and Scotland suggests that just making lots of facilities free won't generate mass public participation and champions of the future. There's an initial surge of interest, but gradually the numbers die away and some long-standing devotees, frightened off by marauding hordes of nouveaux racquetistes, never return. The key to longer term success is identified as providing free coaching alongside the facilities, but coaches have to make a living and someone somewhere would have to keep paying for them, potentially a big wage bill for some authorities, assuming you can find enough good coaches for each set of courts in the first place.

Sport England, which in 2003 spent £18.7m on tennis facilities and outreach in London, includes tennis amongst its ten priority sports and has some money to throw at the problem, but not enough to make a difference right across the capital. Consequently, they target their resources at "those London boroughs which are committed to sport and leisure and have a robust sports plan in place". The LTA has some money for facilities, too, but is under pressure to show returns on investment and so tends to want almost sole use of any building it predominantly funds. Potential benficiaries can find this too constraining and compromise multi-sport facilities supported partially by LTA funding and offering some tennis availability are a logical outcome.

All of this leads to public tennis wastelands punctuated by beacons of excellence such as the Hackney City Tennis Clubs and the Westway Sports Centre under the A40 flyover, which offers 8 indoor acrylic courts using the same surface as the US Open at Flushing Meadow and "the only [four] clay tennis courts in London open to the general public." Both organisations welcome allcomers, but it is not free to play. At Westway the prices for open, non-bookable coaching sessions are modest, but adult non-concession court bookings vary from £8 to £20 for an hour while Hackney charges adults £5.50 at peak times.

A warm welcome for tennis players in Ealing captured in grange85's Flickr stream.

Back in 2005 both Sport England and the LTA felt the Mayor himself could do more to dispel the overriding impression that "Wimbledon is too often seen as part of the summer social circuit as opposed to a major sporting event." They cite New York's annual tennis fever during their Grand Slam as a chastening example and suggest Mr Livingstone could work with various partners to offer big screens showing Wimbledon in prominent public spaces across London as well as organising publicity events such as exhibition matches in places like Trafalgar Square where stars such as Henman, Becker, Sampras and Agassi have occasionally served and volleyed. Ken has certainly been busy securing worldwide sporting exposure for London ahead of 2012, but he does seem to have taken his eye off the tennis ball for a while now.

Not everybody accepts pay as you play as inevitable. Comedian Tony Hawks is a spokesperson for the Tennis For Free campaign, who "have been working since summer 2004 establishing partnerships with councils nationally, offering them funding and support to open up park courts to their communities." Their search engine shows all the courts that they know of in London offering free tennis. The list of boroughs in encouraging, but the results in individual authorities can be sobering. If you're going down to Merton for the Wimbledon Championships any time in the next fortnight you could pop along to sample their only entry, the Joseph Hood Recreation Ground, where there are a total of three hard courts available along with free coaching on Saturday mornings. Over the next fourteen days the queue for ground passes at the All England Club may at times be shorter.

Last Updated 25 June 2007