After Team GB triumped in the Davis Cup final a few hours ago, John Lloyd made the comment that, "We have to use this success to inspire people to play tennis." I don't suppose many involved in tennis would disagree, save a few die hard club members who would prefer their regular Sunday four were not disturbed by an influx of new players making too much noise and ignoring the etiquette of the club rules.
The question is how do you turn this success into greater participation? The Olympic Legacy is struggling to inspire more people to take regular exercise let alone take up a sport. I don't hold out much hope that this weekend's tennis will produce a flurry of action of the courts in the middle of winter, and by the time Spring come around, it might have been superseded by something else.
That's not to say it's all doom and gloom, but things have to be reimagined and there has to be some investment from somewhere in the kind of facilities that will make tennis accessible and enjoyable and at the right sort of cost for a wide range of people.
Tennis is a sport you can play all year round. You can play indoors as well as outdoors. However, it is treated in schools, or so it seems, as primarily an outdoor, summer sport. And that presupposes that schools have tennis courts and coaching available. In my local area only one of the senior schools has tennis courts, and they are currently used as overflow parking! Primary schools have no facilities for tennis.
If you want to play indoors then you need to join a local health club that has courts, and they usually add a premium to your membership if you want access to racket sports. The only other indoor facility I know of locally is 30-40 minutes drive away, cost £20 per hour to hire a court and you are limited to an hour only. Most 3 set matches take around 1.25-1.5 hours to play. Imagine the frustration of constantly running out of time to finish your match! And, then there's the cost of coaching. Imagine if you as a coach have to hire the court at £20 an hour. That's going to make your lesson at least £40. That's a big financial commitment for a parent wanting lessons for their child.
It might be nice to cart the Davis Cup around the country stopping off at schools and tennis centres, but unless the LTA starts to invest in local park courts and community facilities, I can't see how we could sustain any interest and enthusiasm over the long term. Maybe instead of charging clubs hundreds of pounds in membership fees, the central organisation could channel some of that money into getting more community initiatives up and running.
Of course it's not just about money. I have two courts in my local park. They need a good clean, but they're playable. The Sports Club with which I'm involved through rugby has just refurbished two courts. It could have been three had the LTA offered a grant rather than a loan. The Health Club were I do some coaching has some unused outdoor courts that could be repaired, possibly even be brought indoors if there was a partnership between the club and the LTA in some way. All this would take money, but it also needs coaches and volunteers to help manage and run imaginative programmes. A shiny trophy on the back of a bus might inspire but it won't sustain.
I'm not sure what the answer is. I came to tennis late in life and love playing and I love coaching. There are plenty of more experienced folk out there who have spent far longer in tennis that I. I just hope someone takes the time to ask them how we can move forward and get parents and kids to take up the game.