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Tennis in Ulster on the up

In the last five years there has been a 100% increase in participation in Ulster, according to a report published by the Ulster Branch of Tennis Ireland.

Since 2008, the number of people playing tennis in Ulster has grown from 7,000 to 14,000 and the Ulster Branch of Tennis Ireland (UBTI) has set a target of 20,000 players by 2019.

Lauren Smythe, development manager at Ulster Tennis, has worked closely with clubs to set targets in terms of membership growth, increasing revenues, improving court utilisation, reducing costs and increasing fundraising over a five-year period, which is reviewed on a monthly basis.

Key initiatives such as club open days have seen membership levels increase throughout the province – with the number of club players growing by 26% to 5,300 registered players. As well as encouraging new players to try tennis for free, clubs put on barbeques, face painting and bouncy castles as well as staging exhibition matches and cardio tennis sessions.

Newcastle Tennis Club in County Down hosted an open day during Wimbledon and saw 87 new members join as a direct result – 40 people signed up on the day and a further 47 people joined the following week to take advantage of a promotional membership rate.

Downshire Tennis Club in Hillsborough attracted 100 new members in 2014 after hosting four community events during the summer, which coincided with events in the village.

“We have found the Open Day to be successful on two fronts,” said organiser Neal Lucas. “Firstly to actually sign up new members on the day and secondly it is a significant contributor to the general promotion of the club at a key time of year.”

Parks Tennis also contributed to the growth in participation figures, with 2,000 children participating in Parks Tennis in its sixth year.

Carlos Miranda, tennis coach at Belfast Boat Club, volunteered at a Parks Tennis scheme held during the summer holidays in nearby Ormeau Park. The club also donated vouchers for three players to receive three months’ free membership.

“Parks Tennis is a great way of introducing children who may not otherwise get the opportunity to play,” said the club’s junior director Ben Neal. “Belfast Boat Club was keen to provide this link to Ormeau Park to encourage any children wishing to continue their tennis development to come along to the club.”

A third initiative was introducing tennis in schools.  This year, 182 secondary schools entered the Ulster Tennis Secondary Schools Competition, which equated to 88 boys’ and 94 girls’ teams across three age groups and more than 700 players taking part.

Cloughey and District Tennis Club on the Ards Peninsula in County Down is hoping to boost its membership after establishing links with primary schools.

Established just six years ago under the leadership of head coach Alistair Dunn, the club now has more than 100 members and hopes to grow that figure further after introducing 140 children to the sport via its Schools Mini Tennis Programme for kids under the age of 10. Using an extra-long mini-net in the playground (or school hall if it rains), Dunn can accommodate up to 20 children at once.

“Time will tell as to how many will join the club but I’m confident we will get a good crowd of new juniors this summer,” said Dunn. “I would recommend this to other clubs as a way to attract juniors and it pays quite well for the coach.”

But while increasing participation in clubs, schools and parks is the primary focus, Ulster Tennis believes that partnerships with coaches, clubs, players, parents and sponsors can help nurture a performance pathway for a young player to achieve a top 100 ITF world ranking.

It was recently introduced a £1,000 grant for clubs to develop a Club High Performance programme for Under 12 players.  In 2014, 387 children played in Tennis 10s events, more than doubling the expected target of 150 participants.

In September, Ulster Tennis also launched UBTI Performance squads, including a college squad for Under 18 players aspiring to gain a scholarship to an American university.

David Weir was awarded a scholarship to Pfeiffer University in North Carolina, while Peter Bothwell is the first Ulster player to reach the professional ranks.  Bothwell, 19, is currently ranked No.2025 in singles and No.1282 in doubles, while his brother Sam is the current Under 18 Irish National Singles champion.

“Ulster Tennis is keen to halt the long-term decline of tennis clubs in Ulster and close the gap with Leinster which has 40,000 players,” said Smythe. “It is important that clubs adopt a strategy for growth, put in place targets to improve the club programme and ensure new members are given value for money, competitive play and easy access to a club coaching programme to help them improve their skills.

“It is also essential that the tennis club has a strong social programme for all ages and abilities as this is the main purpose of tennis clubs to support integration into the community where friendships flourish and people have fun.”