Dan Bloxham has dual roles at The Championships. On the one hand, he goes by the official title is Master of Ceremonies, which means he looks after the top male players – giving them an alarm call before they are due on court, ensuring they are ready for their matches and escorting them to and from Centre and No.1 Courts; he also gets the trophies ready on finals day. On the other hand – and a world away from the decorum and formality of operating in the inner sanctum of the AELTC – he hosts the rock ’n’ roll whooping and hollering demonstration of promising youngsters discovered by his Wimbledon Junior Tennis Initiative which has become a tradition on Middle Saturday.
Today Court 14 drew a keen and curious crowd craning to see what the pumping music and the "You’ve got potential!" exclamations were all about. What they saw was a selection of local youngsters having the time of their lives knocking up with Tim Henman – who looks not a day older, fatter or more decrepit in tennis whites than the day he retired. Imagine the thrill of knocking up on the famous grass of Wimbledon with the former British No.1. You could see the kids having a lot of fun but equally determined to show they had the hand-to-eye coordination, agility and steely hunger for the game to impress. "Last chance or we’re taking these balls away!" Cue, photos at the net with Tiger Tim and a slight reluctance to leave this once-in-a-lifetime moment on a Championship Court.
Not necessarily once-in-a-lifetime, though. The aim behind the WJTI, which began in 2001 as a community tennis initiative run by The All England Club in partnership with the London boroughs of Merton and Wandsworth, is to give every young child the opportunity to reveal potential talent. In total, Dan and his team of coaches have visited more than 500 schools and given more than 125,000 children their first experience of tennis. Each week one school in Merton and one in Wandsworth receive a full day of coaching from Dan and his team for every pupil in the school, from Nursery and Primary through to Special Needs and Secondary.
Players were specially selected for the Court 14 demo, but over the road, on the Wimbledon Park Tennis Courts, children three to 17 are welcome to roll up and participate in a free coaching day orchestrated by the WTJI. The scheme is well supported by professional players and traditionally there is plenty of oohing and aahing as toddlers collect stray balls, kids rally with their heroes and parents looked on proudly. Even players still in the singles draw and gunning for a place in the quarter-finals might pop over for a sport of practice with a line-up of racket-wielding five-year-olds.
Two years ago an up-and-coming young Brit gave generously with her time to knock balls back and forth across a mini net. “I've just had an UNBELIEVABLE 56-stroke rally," raved Heather Watson back then, after a sweat-raising stint against Tom and Lucy, aged 5 and 5 and a very important ¾. “I remember coming to Wimbledon when I was 10 and meeting Vera Zvonereva and Tim Henman so I understand where they're coming from. Enjoyment is the only important thing at their age. And inspiration. They get to see how good they can be one day.”