How a grass roots Leeds scheme could help produce more homegrown tennis champions

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Britain waited years for a homegrown tennis champ but we may not have to wait so long in future, writes Neil Hudson

Our nation’s dearth of sporting victories is something we have become accustomed. Indeed, it’s almost something we’re good at, especially when it comes to football.

Until a few years ago, tennis also ranked in our less than impressive sporting credentials, our previous last major victory coming in 1977 when Virginia Wade won Wimbledon. Before that, the only banner bearer we had was the late great Fred Perry, born in 1909 and who won Wimbledon three times from 1934-36.

Thankfully, our (somewhat embarrassing) stint in the tennis champ wilderness came to an abrupt end in 2013, after Andy Murray managed to win the title and allow a nation of fans to finally breath a long-held sigh of relief.

The victory was a long time coming and Murray, like less successful (though no less inspirational) Tim Henman before him, is now the standard bearer for all things tennis related.

But this begs a question, because while it’s fine to have a champion, one has to ask, where will the next one hail from?

Well, the next centre court star may be the product of a tennis coaching school which began life in Leeds and recently won the backing of former Dragons’ Den star Theo Paphitis.

Founder and former professional tennis player-turned-coach Matt McTurk is the man behind the franchise, which now has eight centres across the UK, introducing hundreds of children - and their parents - to the joys of the game.

Matt grew up in Leeds and played tennis in Roundhay before turning professional and travelling to the US, where he spent three years honing his game. Upon his return, he played at county level and was formerly ranked number two in Yorkshire, winning the Yorkshire Championship doubles events in 2003 and 2005. Now 44, he has been involved in coaching for over 20 years and says the idea for the franchise came to him as he was falling asleep.

Tennis Tots now has centres in Leeds, York, Norwich, Surrey, North Wales, St Alban’s, Kent and Edinburgh with plans to open others, including one in Harrogate, soon.

Children can be enrolled into classes from the age of two and up to six.

Matt, a father of two, who has a daughter, Sophia, eight and son, Lucas, four with wife Ana Perez, said it was never too young to start.

“You’re never going to get elite players unless you have a big base of entry level players to choose from. Starting the game young is essential and this programme does that, because it gets them involved and familiar with it but it’s also fun, for them and their parents.

“I think there’s a climate now where we’ve seen successful British players and we have more coming through and we want to build on that. That has captured the imagination of a lot of people.”

Speaking about gaining the backing of one of BBC2’s former dragons, Mr Pathisis, Mark said: “We tweeted something out about the programme and he re-tweeted it to his 500,000 followers.”

Matt even managed to get his picture taken with the tycoon.

“I’d like to see more tennis played in schools, it’s an expensive game so that would help remove that barrier. I think it’s a great game in terms of self-discipline and self-reliance but it’s also a game you can play your whole life.

“For those children who do want to go on to become professional, we have links with other organisations but this sets them off on that path.”

Gavin Sutcliffe is regional tennis participation manager for the Lawn Tennis Association in Yorkshire and regularly works with schools across the county.

He said the ‘Murray effect’ was palpable - during a recent ‘Tennis for Kids’ event, which involved participants being given a free racket, places on the courses were booked up within 48 hours.

The LTA have also been working on a new mobile-phone-based booking system to allow people to access free courts in public parks.

“I think people are more interested in tennis and children are part of that. Like a lot of other sports, we have a drop-out for people around the ages of 15 and 16 but we’re in a good position. It comes from the top down but it’s all about trying to make sure we connect with people. That’s what the phone booking system is all about - we want to make it as easy as possible for people to play tennis.

Dr Andrew Manley, principal lecturer in sport and exercise and sports psychology at Leeds Beckett University, concurred.

He said: “Andy Murray is just one of a number of a number of people in the public eye and there has been a lot of research done into how people identify with successful athletes and how that influences behaviour. They identify with people who traits they can see in themselves. Murray is an interesting example because to begin with he was often criticised for his personality but he’s not changed that much over the years and I think people have come to like him for it, it’s a form of resilience.”

He added: “It’s interesting to note that the Welsh football team have a psychologist and there’s talk now of perhaps looking at bringing that approach to the England football team.”