TENNIS: How Bolton Tennis Academy is putting the town on the world's sporting map
HAVING the distinction of being one of only three international high performance centres in Britain, Bolton Tennis Academy is as well-placed as any of the Lawn Tennis Association’s elite bases to produce future Grand Slam champions.
Based at the USN Bolton Arena, where some of the nation’s most prodigious young talent receive expert tuition and guidance, the Academy has built a world-class reputation that is second to none in the UK, where it boasts the largest number of LTA funded players.
It is a reputation that three years ago saw the Arena host a Davis Cup tie and where recently many of the best young players in the world gathered to compete in the prestigious Nike Junior International Teen Tennis tournament.
The development “pyramid” which is now well established at the Middlebrook headquarters was endorsed as recently as last Wednesday by a LTA review.
But manager Stuart Kay, who has spearheaded the Academy’s meteoric rise that has seen it recognised as the “national tennis centre of the north” over the last decade is still not satisfied.
He is embarking on an expansion plan which focuses on grassroots here in Bolton – in local clubs, parks and schools.
Tennis was on the timetable for pupils at St Andrews School Over Hulton when Wayne Jones – one of the Academy’s six full-time coaches – gave pupils a flavour of a sport that traditionally captures the imagination of the general public once a year when Wimbledon dominates the sporting scene, and to raise awareness of the Academy.
The aim is to get more local youngsters on to the first rung of the development ladder which should, eventually, increase the chances of producing a Grand Slam champion.
“A wider base would make the pyramid so much stronger and with the programmes we have in place, would mean more coming through at the top end,” Kay said.
“Bolton Council has invested in improving facilities at four or five parks in the area which will help generate interest in the sport and we are aiming to build on our Schools Outreach Programme as well as having greater links with the community and cohesion with clubs locally.”
But new initiatives require additional funding and Kay and his team are actively pursuing sponsors to enable them to deliver the expansion plan and raise awareness of the facilities and the programmes available at the Arena, where world-class coaching and strength and conditioning support is on tap and where eight indoor and two outdoor courts provide a service the town can be proud of.
“I don’t think enough people actually realise the facilities we have here,” Kay added.
“I don’t think it is recognised we are now one of three international high performance centres in the county (the others are at Bath and Gosling in Welwyn Garden City) and that we attract the best players in the north of England and Scotland.
“International players come here and are impressed by our facilities.
“Recently we had the best junior players in the world playing here – world-ranked players who are going to be hitting the top 100 in the ATP and WTA rankings in the next four to six years.
“There just aren’t many facilities like ours in the country. We are the only tennis centre of our kind capable of hosting a Davis Cup match, for instance.”
Kay has been manager of the Academy for 10 years, a decade which he describes as having been a “bit of a roller-coaster”.
“I came in just as the LTA were pulling out of the Academy so from a high we went into a bit of a low,” he recalled.
“But over the last five years we’ve been on the up and we continue to grow.
“Now I just love coming into work every day.”
That is hardly surprising considering the success of the various programmes that are now standard bearers for the sport’s governing body, having progressed from an LTA Silver High Performance Centre in 2008 to International High Performance Centre in 2012.
The Outreach Programme is already taking tennis into 35 local schools and from a base of 285 youngsters who are enrolled on the Mini Tennis Development Programme through to 21-year-old professional Ashley Hewitt, from Warrington, who is currently 420 in the world rankings, the Academy covers all phases of talent development.
Hewitt is the most senior of the Academy’s international-standard players. But below him Kay has high hopes for the likes of 18-year-old Peter O’Donovan from Cumbria, Harry Simpson, aged 15, from Hull, George Hutchings (13) from Clitheroe, Marni Banks (11) from Wigan, Jhonayah Fletchman (12) from Salford and Bolton’s own, 17-year-old Sabrina Federici, who is ranked 40 in Britain and continued her progress with a string of impressive performances in major tournaments in 2013.
Now in the professional ranks, Federici is due to leave for university in America later this year when she will further her education on the USA College Tennis circuit.
Hutchings, Banks and another young Academy starlet Hannagh McColgan competed in the Teen Tennis tournament and although they did not progress beyond the early rounds, benefited from playing in such high-class competition.
“The experience will stand them all in good stead,” Kay said.
“If you look at the players who have played in the Teen Tennis event in the past (Andy Murray, Laura Robson, Caroline Wozniaki, Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters) it shows you just where they are at.”