If you haven’t heard of TENNIS FOR FREE before let me explain, it’s a tennis charity that operates mainly in South West London arranging free tennis coaching for mostly underprivileged children and sometimes their parents. My involvement started with a chance meeting with its founder, comedian, author and tennis fanatic Tony Hawks some ten years ago. Every Saturday morning Tony would come to the Joseph Hood Recreational ground in New Morden and hit balls with kids of all sizes, colours and creeds. Most had never picked up a tennis racket before, some took to the sport like a duck to water, while others already had a good all round knowledge of the sport and needed to hone in their tennis skills by taking advantage of free coaching sessions. At times there would be 20 or more on one court alone but one thing which is very clear is that all enjoyed hitting balls for a couple of hours which in turn created quite a community spirit amongst those taking part.

When I first started helping out, tennis was taught on the three run-down public tennis courts that has seen better days by volunteer coaches, Most Saturdays I would come to sessions which start at 10 am and usually finish around 1 pm.  Cracks on the courts were everywhere and the nets were mostly kept together with pieces of string (these have since been replaced), yet the run down state of the courts didn’t deter the 100 or more kids and parents turning up each Saturday morning, come rain or shine for their free tennis practice and where Tony initially conducted his free coaching lessons and time permitting give a few minutes individual coaching to as many as he could fit in. The courts are divided into ability, the first is supervised by Charlie who mostly coaches beginners and has been with Tennis for Free since its inception. The second court is reserved for anyone able to hit and control a few forehands, backhands, lobs and volleys, while the third court is for players of varying degrees of abilities but who are keen to improve their tennis and enjoy taking part in Bollittieri style exercises. Finally there’s David’s lot, he looks after children from 4 – 7 years of age, (some older) on what was a former car park but now a multi-purpose court. For an hour and a quarter he manages to keep them all actively involved in a series of tennis exercises from running round the court to hitting balls with special kids rackets supplied by the charity. He even gets the parents involved by asking them to feed balls to small groups 5 kids. At the end of each session David plays ‘Simon Says’, a game the children love before handing out a sweet to each child. The good thing is that there is never a disgruntled or weepy child during these sessions and perhaps why classes sometimes attract as many as 40 children!

My role is replenish balls and have been nicknamed, the ball lady. This doesn’t exactly mean I pick up balls as a ball girl would, but instead go round to tennis clubs collecting discarded balls which are still usable and which have become indispensable in keeping the charity going as no money is spent on buying cheap balls. From time to time, (under David’s instigation), the kids sign a huge ‘Thank You’ card to me as a show their appreciation.One amusing message had me in fits of laughter when one of the kids wrote, ‘Thank you for your posh balls’. This is because some balls come from my tennis club and still have the Queen’s Club logo on them!!

But it is David and Charlie who deserve the most praise for their continuing support over the years. For the past couple of years we have been fighting for funding to resurface the courts and have approached the Merton council and Wimbledon Foundation to sponsor many this. We continue to keep our fingers tightly crossed that one day money is made available improve these facilities.  www.tennisforfree.com

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