Johnny Nic on why tennis needs a reboot

Shahida Jacobs
on day nine the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club at Wimbledon on July 2, 2014 in London, England.

In his first column for Tennis365, John Nicholson discusses why tennis needs to be rebooted so it is advertised and sold as an inclusive working class sport.

It’s fashionable in certain circles to think that the class system is an outmoded concept in modern Britain. I beg to differ. How do I know? Because I watch tennis.

Everything that comprises life in these lands is inextricably laced with class identity. Everything is processed through the class filter. The moment we meet someone, we subconsciously establish where they fit on the class league table. We can’t help it. We just do.

When you live in a country where class is even assigned to simple foodstuffs, it shows just how interwoven it is throughout our lives, right down to the smallest detail.

Let me illustrate. What class is quinoa? We all know it’s middle-class. Watercress? Middle-class, right? Potatoes? Working-class, unless they’re organic heritage potatoes, then they become middle-class. Tinned tomatoes? Working class, unless they’re tinned cherry tomatoes with basil, then they’re middle-class.

It’s senseless but nonetheless true. By some sort of cultural osmosis, we live with and understand these notions implicitly.

Nothing is excluded. Not even sport. So when I ask what class is tennis, we’d pretty much all know it was middle-class. And we’d be right.

To illustrate with just a few examples. Johanna Konta’s father was a hotel manager and her mother a dentist. Heather Watson’s dad was the managing director of Guernsey Electricity. Laura Robson’s dad was an oil executive with Royal Dutch Shell, her mother a sports coach and former professional basketball player.

Tim Henman’s father was a solicitor, his mother a dress designer. Ironically, Fred Perry’s father was a cotton spinner and he had a very working class upbringing and he didn’t do so bad. But today, I don’t see any player who grew up on a council estate and whose parents were manual labourers.

Even as Kyle Edmund reaches the third round of the Australian Open, the numbers of world-class tennis players produced by Britain in the last 40 years has been very small for a nation of 60 million.

While almost all of our elite footballers are from the working class or even the underclass (We have had a woman playing for England that did so while homeless and living on the streets). As in boxing, the sport has been a way out of poverty and deprivation.

Tennis ain’t that. But why can’t it be?

Surely if people from disadvantaged backgrounds could be inspired and motivated to take up the game, they, like their footballing contemporaries, could bring that hunger and desire for success to the game and elevate British tennis onto a far higher level, in far greater numbers. The almost total absence of working class people in tennis tells you that the potential talent is culturally and economically alienated.

How has this happened? Perhaps the block on working class progress is because of tennis clubs. There is one near to where I live. I have never, not once, ever, seen anyone playing tennis there.

The courts are always deserted. I pass by it on my daily constitutional three or four times per week. I assume it’s more of a social thing and I doubt there are many people who belong to it from the local social housing scheme.

Although there is a sign welcoming new members, even me I at my age, would feel intimidated to join, fearing I’d be surrounded by rather snooty gin-soaked conservatives.

This may not be right, I fully admit, but the suspicion that it is, stops me joining. Where did I get that idea from? They are not reaching out to me to reassure me that they are open, progressive and inclusive. And if I feel that as a lower middle-class writer and author who lives on one of Edinburgh’s poshest streets, I’m sure others of far less privilege do so even more.

Class identity and politics is a dam that is holding back so much innate talent throughout society. If you feel that any sport is not for ‘people like me’ then we will continue to stifle the development of that talent.

How do we change this? The answer is, we probably can’t via the clubs. They are locked into their own culture. They probably don’t want to change and you could argue, why the hell should they? They like it like this.

Instead, we need to reboot tennis so it is advertised and sold as an inclusive working class sport. It’s not like you need a load of expensive kit to get started, but you do need somewhere to play and municipal courts are often said to be in poor condition.

It needs investment in indoor courts and outdoors courts. It needs investment in coaching, easily accessible within communities. And then when talent is identified, it needs financial support in the early years.

This is crucial. If your parents can’t support you while you’re making your way in the game, you’ve no chance.

Tennis isn’t like football where you can join a club and get paid a wage while you train and develop. Instead, you’re dependent on sponsorship and grants.

This is all so insecure, is it any surprise someone who isn’t financially independent would turn their back on the professional game, look upon it as a hobby and go and get a job so they can pay the rent? That’s not even a choice, it’s a necessity.

Hand in hand with this we also need to strip tennis of this self-perpetuating, slightly stuffy strawberries and cream, middle-class image and make it a sport of the people, by the people.

Maybe we can start by overhauling the LTA committee. They seem drawn from a rather rarified financial elite. Look at the profile of the first three on the their list.

“David Gregson, Chairman. Previously, David was a co-founder and Chairman of Phoenix Equity Partners, a leading UK mid-market private equity business. Over his career, he has been a director or Chairman of some thirty companies or charities.”

“Martin Corrie. Currently senior partner in Hicks & Co chartered accountants and chairman of I-Financial Services Group Plc.”

“Richard is Chairman of Whitbread PLC, Board Advisor to Aimia Inc. (owners of the Nectar Card). He is also a Senior Operating Partner at Advent International. Prior to these appointments, Richard was Chief Executive of Alliance Boots Plc.”

Fine men all, I’m sure. Though quite what their qualifications for running a sport are, is less clear and there seems no public test of suitability, nor any obvious accountability. They could be doing a brilliant job or be hopeless. Would we know? But they should see what this symbolises to people from less rarified circumstances.

It says Tennis Is Not For You.

Where are the working-class role models on the board or in the game? In football you can see the likes of Wayne Rooney, Dele Alli, Farah Williams or Steph Houghton emerge from sometimes difficult backgrounds to be successful. In tennis, you can’t. And everyone needs someone to inspire them.

It’s great fun battering a tennis ball, quite how it has become such a bastion of middle-class respectability in Britain, is puzzling, but we shouldn’t be afraid to say it’s a form of cultural apartheid, that it’s wrong, needs properly addressing and not just sweeping under the carpet like a dirty little secret.

John Nicholson – @JohnnyTheNic on Twitter.