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Wimbledon Junior Tennis Initiative back training

Wimbledon Junior Tennis Initiative players.
by Alexandra Willis
Thursday 8 September 2011

If you wander past the All England Club during the two weeks of The Championships, the place is fit to burst with players, press, officials and of course nigh on 40,000 spectators who flock through the gates of the Church Road grounds on a daily basis.

But if you happen to be in SW19 for the other 50 weeks of the year, you might think that all you'd see is the odd tour party, the various museum-goers, and of course the Members. Wrong. Trot past Gate 1 on a weekday evening or over the weekend, and you will see the two hard courts, fondly known as the 'bus turnaround courts' on account of their role during The Championships, teeming with juniors. Leaping about as they hit forehands and backhands within the hallowed grounds of the All England Club, these youngsters are part of the Wimbledon Junior Tennis Initiative, a community project set up by the Club in 2001.

Training from 3-7pm from Tuesday to Friday, and from 9am-5pm on Saturday and Sunday, the premise is simple. Head coach Dan Bloxham and his team visit all the schools in the two boroughs surrounding the AELTC, Merton and Wandsworth, and invite talented and keen youngsters to come and play tennis. At Wimbledon. Every week. What an experience.

"The WJTI is probably one of the country's leading exponents of youth sport, which is not what you might expect at the All England Club," said Bloxham, whose effervescent energy and enthusiasm is one of the driving forces behind the initiative."The kids actually play inside the grounds of the most famous tennis club in the world and probably one of the most famous clubs in the world. That in itself is a unique sporting opportunity for kids in the local borough."

Bloxham and his team have made roughly 450 school visits (from which they select 6-8 youngsters per school) and given over 100,000 youngsters their first taste of tennis, from which they have built up a database of around 850 promising children.

"The great thing with schools is that the numbers aren't limited," he explains. "It takes us a year-and-a-half to get round to each school in Merton and Wandsworth, by which time there's always a new class of 30 to 60 kids. So the numbers go in, and the numbers come out - it's constantly topping up."

Of course, one of the unique parts of the WJTI is that, beyond buying equipment and clothing, the children selected do not have to pay a penny (although rackets and balls are provided for those who do not have them).

"The problem with tennis is expense, so we're taking away that barrier," reveals Bloxham. "When we go into a school, we create a fun day. Those that perform well at school and try hard, they're the ones we'll offer a scholarship to. They can play as long as they like, from the age of three up to 18, up to 15 hours a week. The Club will finance the kid's aspirations for as long as they work very hard, which again is a unique aspect."

But the WJTI is not just about a hit and giggle for local school children. There are those who come along for the weekend sessions, a group of roughly 300. But there are also those who train on weekday evenings too. And for them, competition is key.

"We start with a thing called 'Intra', where the kids play a timed tennis tournament here at the Club. This year it rained, so we set up four mini red courts in the Long Bar and underneath the red walkways of Centre - 40 kids took part, it was great," Bloxham said.

"As they get stronger, we enter them into tournaments externally. The Club are in little league, mini-league and AEGON Team Tennis, and as they get better, they play more events. As their coaches, we offer them the support to plot which events to go enter. We have five players who are matrix-funded by the LTA, so they go into national talent I.D, and two who are top in their age group. The depth of talent is out there, it's just a question of accessing that talent."

The WJTI are in action from 3-7pm Tuesday to Friday, and from 9am-5pm on Saturday and Sunday. To find out more, visit the WJTI website or get in touch.

To learn about the history of the WJTI, The Wimbledon Junior Tennis Initiative: Serving the Community by Julian Tatum (pictured above), is available in the Wimbledon Shops. 

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