AFTER only a few minutes in the playground of Ralston Primary School it is clear that the passion for tennis is thriving in Scotland. Ask the youngsters if they want to follow in Andy Murray’s footsteps and boys and girls are quick to respond in the positive.
Some of them had never picked up a racquet before but hitting shots off a temporary wall assembled for the purposes of delivering the David Lloyd All Stars Programme, they are growing in confidence, stepping into shots and even attempting a cheeky wee backhand or two as they are cajoled and coached by Mark Petchey.
We need to be able to cater for the kids who want to be the next Andy MurrayMark Petchey
The man who coached Murray in the formative period of his senior career is in his element and says that, in his opinion, these kind of clinics and taster sessions are the best way to find someone to fill the void that will be left when the two-time grand slam champion eventually retires.
“I don’t see any reason why we can’t have the next GB grand slam champion coming from somewhere like Paisley,” said Petchey. “They are all brilliant players at the top level of the game and it will maybe be a little bit too much to ask for another Andy to come through because he is so unique and special and it will be difficult to fill his shoes because of what he has achieved and I know how difficult it has been for him to achieve what he has done.
“But what we can do is have thousands and thousands more kids playing, maybe tens of thousands and the capacity is there to do that but we have got to make that link at a very young age, at the schools, and that’s where this David Lloyd All Stars Programme comes into it because we can come into schools and then, hopefully, the link is there with the club and they can keep these kids playing.
“But we need to find ways to keep the cost down for parents to allow them to keep playing locally consistently because as a parent myself with two kids who play I know how expensive it is. If you have big numbers then not everyone who is playing needs to be top players or have the capacity to be great players but they need to be playing. Then out of those thousands you will find some other great players and those who aren’t will still go on to become parents one day and they will encourage their kids to play and maybe their kids will be the ones who make it.”
But as well as increasing the numbers participating, Petchey says there is a necessity to capture and retain interest throughout the calendar year instead of the boom and bust that bookends Wimbledon. The stop-off in Scotland is part of a whistle stop Pre-Wimbledon National Tennis Roadshow and benefited from a perfect day for tennis, as the sun stirred up pictures of the green, green grass of SW19, strawberries and cream and a refreshing Pimms. But the challenge is enticing the same enthusiasts along to a private indoor centre on the dreich days, without such incentives.
“Andy is the inspiration for kids all over Britain and heavily so here in Scotland and rightly so,” said Petchey. “With his success, they can watch him all over the world throughout the year and, hopefully, retain that interest but for that to matter we need to be able to cater for the kids who have looked at him and want to be the next Andy Murray. We can deliver things like this All Stars programme but it isn’t just today we need to move towards a consistent 12-month programme. So that those who usually just dust off the racquet and regrip them stirred by memories of John McEnroe in his heyday and head back out there before they start sweating and realise they are not quite as fit as they thought they were, can be encouraged to keep it going all year round and take the kids with them.”
The schools are another driving force but finance dictates whether creative learning aids like the pop-up wall can find a home in playgrounds throughout Britain. “It is a shame because the wall for some reason has gone from our tennis social fabric,” added Petchey. “When I grew up all the top players played against a wall for hours on end but although days like today prove that the enthusiasm is there and the culture is still there kids need to be allowed to play and if that means this wall instead of a wall of a building then okay, let’s do it.”
With Murray set to keep on inspiring, with his former coach confident that he can build on his improvements on clay with another good shot at his home slam in a matter of weeks, Petchey doesn’t want the momentum to be lost. Neither do the kids who were chosen to take part yesterday or the envious onlookers, held back by a makeshift cordon on the day. Petchey says if we want a replacement for Murray, then all the barriers have to come down and the roadshows have to be just the start of it.