Picture this. A rare sunny Sunday morning in Manchester, St Mary’s Park, Prestwich to be precise.
Four tennis courts are filled with enthusiastic players of varying ages and ability.
It’s weeks before Wimbledon and me and my brother are slugging it out on a centre court trying to claim rank as number one tennis player in the family before the working week launches again.
A family play doubles on the far court, four lads – an American, two Englishmen and a guy from China, and two lads from Poland are also playing on courts on either side of us.
But there’s one problem.
Unlike the rest, our tennis match-up isn’t fair – the net is all but collapsed but we continue, slightly subdued.
The poor condition of the court is fairly typical of other grassroot-level sites across the region and indeed the country.
Sport England recently refused millions of pounds of funding to support tennis in the community because they said the Lawn Tennis Association’s plans to boost tennis participation ‘weren’t strong enough to justify investment’.
Looking out at St Mary’s park that day, you’d think enough want tennis – and enough of the community want to help others.
A man concerned about our drooping net shouted over suggesting we use an empty plastic bottle – “shove it under the wire, tighten the net and it will hold it higher,” he said. Nice try but to no avail.
Fifteen minutes passed and concerns grew. Remarkably, a bloke from another court walked our way with a screwdriver.
Scared, worried, we laughed accepting his willingness to help.
Moments later, as screws on the metal post holding up the drooping tennis net were loosened, five other lads, me and my brother all pulled up the net to a match-playing height and it held true. The paparazzi would have snapped a seriously weird picture if they had defied all expectations and showed up.
The next day my brother responded to an email entitled ‘tennis, empty plastic bottles and a screwdriver?’
“I know some people who have done that, but that’s tennis pal,” he joked.
Driving home later in the week I passed St Mary’s Park and noticed two capable tennis teens smashing balls over a net, into the net, but mostly over it, on otherwise empty courts.
I could see the empty plastic bottle as the green ball whizzed by it again and again – The screw was out of sight but obviously holding the net tight.
Funding cuts were on the mind as I pondered grassroots tennis and its future. A well thought of tennis coach in a Manchester suburb said we need to let people enjoy the sport.
I agree – we can’t be so hell-bent and obsessive about producing the next Andy Murray, and therefore keep ploughing money solely into tennis centres where only the well-off can afford to be coached.
Kids especially, and the older generation, need encouragement, then the basic facilities where they can go to enjoy their tennis for free in order to put that encouragement into practise. The next Murray might just come out of a community in time.
For now though, until a bit of cash arrives, add two items to your check-list just in case: ‘Tennis Racket, Balls, Empty Bottle(s), Screwdriver.