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Early start: Tennis for tots

Read about the early careers of some professional players and you will note that many picked up their first tennis racket before they were out of nappies.

While some did not start playing the sport until the grand old age of ten, most of today’s top players were on court by the age of five.

The early lives of the likes of Andre Agassi and Martina Hingis have been well documented – Hingis’ mother Melanie had earmarked her daughter as a tennis champion during pregnancy and the Swiss entered her first tournament as the age of four.

One of the most influential women in British sport, Baroness Sue Campbell, the former chairwoman of UK Sport, warned recently that parents who push children into a specific sport too young risk putting them off for life.

While pushy parents run the risk of ruining the enjoyment of sport in their children, introducing a toddler to tennis can have its benefits.

Andy Low, founder of Topspin Monkeys in Surrey, offers a tennis programme for youngsters aged two to six.

While one amongst his ranks may go on to play professionally, Low believes his tennis classes offer benefits that go beyond the court.

Using specially-adapted tennis equipment, such as 17” Tecnifibre rackets and Zsig equipment specifically designed for toddlers, the programme helps develop movement and hand eye co-ordination, introduces children to the importance of competition, sportsmanship and fair play, not to mention encouraging social interaction.

“I don’t like pushing kids, not just in tennis but all sports,” Low, who spent 17 years as a secondary school teacher before retraining as a tennis coach last year,” told TIA UK News. “I’m not trying to find the next Andy Murray; I just want to get kids active, enjoying sport and help them develop key skills.

“I’m trying to teach them skills related to other sports, like throwing, catching, striking and movement which are important in all sports. As much as I want children to play tennis, if a kid decided tennis wasn’t for them they would still have the skills to try another sport.

“I believe if you can get them at a young age they are more likely to play sport throughout their life.”

Low, whose father was a professional footballer, played cricket and football at county standard as a youngster but never excelled at tennis. It was while taking his nephew to Socatots that he recognised he could apply the same principles to tennis.

After quitting his teaching job in January 2012, he launched Topspin Monkeys last September and has seen his business grow from four classes to ten within a year.

While word of mouth has been his best marketing tool, interest spiked after Andy Murray’s Wimbledon victory.

“As soon as he won Wimbledon I was inundated with phone calls,” Low recalls. “I had so much interest. At the beginning of term I usually get asked for trial classes, but when Murray won Wimbledon in early July I had mums calling up to get their kids in a class for September. The week after Wimbledon I had around 20 calls from mums wanting to sign up – one had a baby who was only eight months old!

“It’s great to have some British role models as it really helps the sport. We need more role models, especially girls like Heather Watson and Laura Robson, to get more girls into tennis.

“I would love to have a class of all girls, but at the moment I would say they make up around 40 per cent of my classes.”

While physical and social development are the primary goals of his classes, is it too early to earmark a future Wimbledon champion?

“You can often see, even at a young age, if a kid is going to a good player,” says Low. “I’ve got a little one now who joined in January and from the very first lesson I knew he was going to be good. He’s nearly four-and-a-half now and if he keeps doing as well as he is now he will need to start playing at an academy so he can develop even more.

“But what’s more important is getting these children active, teaching them to throw and catch and developing their confidence. Whether they go on to play tennis, badminton, golf or football it doesn’t matter to me.”