THE starched whites, pristine lawns and strawberries and cream of the All England Club have rarely seemed further away.
As the rain falls in sheets on a grim, grey Drumchapel day, Judy Murray is out on a neglected, overgrown concrete tennis court in a public park, dodging the puddles to knock the ball about with kids and pose for photos. The weather might have refused to play ball but the impromptu appearance of the evangelist-in-chief for tennis in this country is a signal of an emerging success story.
The 1950s estate originally dreamed up as overspill from Glasgow city centre has emerged as an unlikely new hub for tennis, and the visit from Scotland's most famous tennis mum marks the fact that these ramshackle courts are to be reborn, resurfaced and relit by the summer of 2013 as part of a citywide £1m project which Tennis Scotland hope can become a model for local authorities across the land. With the courts at Knightswood Park also being improved, some coaching help being enlisted from Drumchapel Tennis Club, and Glasgow one of the few local authorities in Scotland which is committed to free public use, this is an intriguing pilot for how the sport may develop in this country. Ironically, considering the conditions, the only thing the new courts will not have is a roof.
"For a long time now, tennis has had that elitist image, that it is too expensive and there are only so many people who can play it," said Murray, who met with Drumchapel and Anniesland Councillor Paul Carey. "But the LTA [Lawn Tennis Association], the governing body of the sport in Britain, has been working hard over the last few years to try to put more investment into schools and into park sites and that is absolutely what has to happen.
"We have to make our sport more accessible, and more affordable to more people, and the way to do that is to have more local public facilities. Over the last 20, 30 years we have lost a lot of tennis clubs and lost a lot of courts in schools and in parks to houses, supermarkets, and other sports, but now that the interest in tennis is so high there aren't the places for people to play any more. It is about trying to stimulate an interest in the local community and through the councils to resurrect these park sites."
That all this should be happening in Drumchapel rather than elsewhere comes down to the intervention of one primary three teacher at St Clare's Primary. "It might not be an area you would typically associate with a sport like tennis, but the interest is here," said Murray. "About two and a half years ago I went to a primary school called St Clare's because a teacher in a primary three class e-mailed Tennis Scotland to ask me if Andy would come and visit her class because her class are Andy Murray mad. I picked up the e-mail and said look he can't come, but I will come.
"We set up tennis in the playground at the school, it was on a slope and it was windy, it was a real challenge, the balls were flying about all over the place but we showed them what you could do with a classful of kids in a playground to introduce them to tennis. From there it has really developed."
The example is an interesting case study for a booming sport keen to channel that Andy Murray effect into something tangible. With Tennis Scotland research suggesting 50% of potential tennis players want to play in parks, rather than clubs, upgraded courts at Brodie Park have been visited by 900 different kids in their first year.
A proposal is being put to the LTA and sportscotland to centralise the sport still further, but Mike Cohen, tennis development manager (west) for Tennis Scotland, has been impressed with the talent of the kids he has found in Drumchapel. "You find kids here who have got an eye for the ball and pick it up really quickly," Cohen said. "But keeping them interested in the sport is the hard part."
Drumchapel, an area which performs poorly on most indicators of health and life expectancy, is perfect terrain for Murray to put her missionary message across. She feels government and authorities could buy in more to the health benefits of sport from an early age, and schools which do have new facilities should be forced to open them up after hours and at weekends.
"It has been a great year for Andy, his most successful year yet with the Olympic gold and silver medal and the grand slam, but to bring it back to what we are talking about, he had a parent who is sporty, we lived very close to our local tennis club, and the first indoor tennis facility in Scotland was built five miles from our house," she said. "If there hadn't been a tennis centre five miles from our house, he may well have gone down the football route. So again it goes back to the facilities on our doorstep."