More new balls, please

Norwich is currently experiencing its Wimbledon-inspired annual rush to the tennis courts. But can Andy Murray-inspired newcomers be tempted to stay for longer than a short-lived knockabout? SIMON PARKIN reports.

Fresh from his triumph at Queen's, Andy Murray is again embarking on his Wimbledon quest to become the first Britain to lift the men's singles trophy for 72 years.

Were he to manage it, the annual June rush to pick up a racket and book a tennis court will become an avalanche.

Norwich's public courts, in common with courts all over the country, see a sharp spike in serve and volley activity over the Wimbledon fortnight.

However all too often this influx of enthusiasm is short-lived and as the memories of centre court action fade the racquets are consigned to the back of garage once again.

Getting youngsters, in particular, to play the game all year round isn't hampered by facilities. Norwich is blessed with a wide range of both public and private courts, with Norwich City Council maintaining a number of grass and hard surface courts to a high standard.

Its also not sidelined in schools. Alison Oliver, director of sport for the Youth Sport Trust, which helps deliver the government's national school sport strategy, says: 'It's quite a common misconception that tennis is elitist — probably as a result of the way tennis is played in clubs.

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'But it has a different profile in schools, where it has always been a cornerstone of the summer sports curriculum. Most schools have some sort of playground and can offer tennis.'

However there remain barriers to encouraging young players to take up the sport seriously.

Derek Perry, head tennis coach at the East Anglia Tennis and Squash Club, is realistic about the difficulties the sport faces in attracting and retaining promising players.

'It's tough,' he admits. 'There's a large drop-out rate and one of the biggest problems we have at this time of year, when the older kids have exams, is that school does take over a large part of their lives.

'From 10 onwards, it can take over, which can be a slight problem. I think we probably have three major prob-lems. One is the cost of the sport, because it still keeps it under that elitist banner, however much you try to avoid it.

'If you are a good regional level player, your parents are probably spending �5,000-8,000 a year on your needs. At the higher level, national level, you are probably looking at �10,000-15,000.'

In a bid to get round this and get more people of all ages playing the game, Norwich City Council has for the past 12-months been offering free tennis for casual users at nine of its hard tennis courts.

This pilot scheme has been so successful that it has now been extended for another year.

A spokesman for Norwich City Council said: 'The city council's provision of free tennis has proved really popular over the last year. We've decided to extend our initial 12 month trial period for a further 12 months until the end May 2012.

'So if anyone feels inspired by Wimbledon they can go to one of their local tennis courts, pick up a racket, have fun and improve their skills.'

Players of any age or ability have been able to play for no charge at courts at Lakenham Recreation Ground, Har-ford Park, Bowthorpe Park, Alderman Walker Park, Heartsease and Waterloo Park — saving more than a fiver an hour.


? Norwich City Council manages 10 grass tennis courts at Heigham Park; and 12 hard courts split between Alder-man Walker Park, Bowthorpe Park, Eaton Park, Harford Park, Lakenham Rec. and Waterloo Park. Grass courts can be booked for the season or on a one off basis on 0808 1680149. Prices are �5.80 (�2.90 cons) per court, per hour. Hard courts operate on a pay and play basis. Prices �5.30 (�2.65 cons).

? The East Anglia Tennis and Squash Club, located between the Ipswich and Newmarket Roads, has 10 tennis courts, seven floodlit. It caters to all ages and abilities of player. LTA coaching is available. Full adult subscription �23 a month, full family �51 a month, with �25 joining fee. More details: 01603 453532.

? UEA Sportspark has six floodlit tarmac tennis courts. Book hour slots, up 14 days in advance for members on 01603 592398 or in person, seven days in advance in person only for nonmembers. Pay and play is �6.25.