Sweatband spoke to Chris Wilkinson with regards to the best ways to get your child into tennis from a young age and to hone any evident skill and talent. Chris took us through many aspects, from peer influence, the LTA, importance of competition and the pathway-to-pro.
Keeping active and playing a variation of sports
I started playing tennis at about the age of 6, it all started with me following my parents to the local tennis club where they played. Me and my brother would literally sit at the back of the court waiting for them to finish so that we could get the last few minutes of daylight to have a hit around.
It was also important for me and I would definitely recommend for kids to play a lot of varied sports, in fact I was a decent footballer but at the age of 14 and I had to choose between football or tennis.
Playing lots of different sports really does help the movement and coordination in tennis. When you look at the top pros, many of them played different sports until they decided to focus on tennis.
It was easy for me to start playing as my parents were really into tennis and played for local teams but for those without sporty parents it’s a little more difficult to know where to start.
Engage with the LTA
For any youngster wanting to start tennis I would suggest finding your local club and speaking to the club coach as to what the programme has to offer.
You can find your nearest tennis club and coach by visiting the LTA website.
I would suggest starting in a squad situation and see how you like it, if it really appeals and you want to get better quicker it is then worth booking some individual lessons with the Club Coach.
The LTA currently run a great scheme called the LTA Youth programme which is aimed at players aged 4-18, the LTA Youth start is the start of the programme for a child who is just starting out.
Once embedded In the Youth programme at your club it is then a good idea to look to compete and take your game to the next level. Clubs that offer the Youth programme will have Team competitions and individual match play opportunities as part of the structure.
Over a period of time with the matches you play you can then start to build up a ranking and rating.
The pathway to pro
Of course it is great to play for fun but if you want to be a bit serious the next goal would be to represent your club and look to get selected for your county. What if they want to become more serious and can play to a high level? What if they wanted to make a career out of tennis? What if they wanted to become a professional?
The Lawn Tennis Association pathway
The Lawn Tennis Association has a pathway mapped out for those players looking to excel at each stage.
7-10 Year olds - At this age players are involved in County training and if of a relevant level they can access a LPDC (Local Player Development Centre) where you can be part of a specialised programme.
10-14 Year olds – As well as being part of County training if a player is of a good level they will be selected to attend a RPDC ( Regional Player Development Centre) where you will have access to the best coaches and programmes in the Region.
There are 14 RPDC centres in the Country which cater for a maximum of 250 players.
In addition to the RPDC certain players will be selected to be part of the NAGP ( National Age Group Programme). This is for the very best U12 & U14 players in the Country.
14+ Years – One of the key aims of the pathway is to identify players that will be selected for the National Academies.
There are currently 2 National Academies, Loughborough and Stirling which take players from the age of 14-18.
At the 14+ age players who do not go to the National Academy will also have the opportunity to be part of the Men’s & Women programme and the pro scholarship programme.
For more details on the pathway, please visit the LTA.
The importance of competition
During each stage it is important to compete and play in the appropriate tournament to get a good ranking.
Players should first look to play domestic events, when they get to the stage where they wish to be tested more they can then consider getting some international exposure.
In the U12/U14 ages they would look to play in the Tennis Europe events. This gives the player a chance to play against different players from abroad and also to become ranked in Europe.
As well as playing abroad it is Important to continue to compete in your own Country.
The next step for players from 14-18 would be to compete on the Junior ITF Circuit, again similar to Tennis Europe events this gives you the chance to build a world ranking and compete against the best juniors in the world.
Many of the current top ATP players competed on the Junior ITF circuit.
The next step after juniors is to then compete as a Pro on the ATP Tour.
Usually players will first compete on the ITF and ATP Challenger circuit to gain enough ranking points to get into the bigger ATP events.
The journey is different with all players, some can come out of juniors and go immediately on the Tour and some may need a little longer to develop their game.
American University/College – When leaving Juniors players who feel they are not quite ready to go as a pro will go to the States on a tennis Scholarship. This is usually a 4 year deal where players can train and compete in a team, alongside continued study. After the 4 years, if the player feels they are at the right level they will then look to continue their tennis journey as a Pro.
Some real success stories have come out of the American university route, John Isner, Cameron Norrie and The Bryan Brothers to name a few have opted for this pathway.
Obviously those can choose a similar option by opting for a British tennis university.
Other options for players which we quite often see is to uproot and attend an Academy abroad, there are many good programmes in Spain, France and the US.
There are many routes to becoming a Pro, tennis is very much an individual sport and it is important to work out what fits best for you.