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Wimbledon 2021: Can British tennis shake off unwanted tag of being ‘too white, male and posh’?

“Tennis is an elitist sport. The majority of people involved are white and the majority are white men.”

This view from Miles Daley, a 28-year-old black tennis coach from Hackney, is one held by many people in Britain.

The statistics provided by the Lawn Tennis Association (LTA), the sport’s governing body, reinforce some of those opinions.

The LTA says it recognizes the need to make tennis more representative of British communities and, having recently published its inclusion strategy,external-link wants to still do more to “change the perception of the sport”.

“We need to make sure we can ensure representation is seen at each and every level of the sport,” says Scott Lloyd, chief executive of the LTA.

“Our mission is to open tennis up and ensure it can be played and enjoyed by anyone, no matter their age, background or ability.”

‘We need to see more color in the sport’

Daley coaches children in Newham and says he uses his individuality – wearing Nike Jordan trainers, Beats headphones and an NBA vest – to break the mold of what youngsters might think are “normal” tennis coaches.

“I think it is important for people to see that not everyone dresses the same, looks the same, acts the same on court. I’m always looking slightly different,” he says.

When he started playing tennis at school, Daley was the “only black kid or kid of colour, period.”

Although he says it was “predominantly children of colour” when he later joined Hackney City Tennis Clubs – which provides coaching and competition across one of London’s multi-cultural boroughs – racial homogeneity returned when he started playing at a higher level.

“When I left that hub and went to the clubs and tournaments, and even came into contact with coaches, it wasn’t very diverse.

“I didn’t see anyone like me playing the game. It wasn’t the nicest thing.”

Daley says he was encouraged to try other sports instead of tennis as a child: athletics because he was fast, or football because it was “easier to do.”

Today, he says he is still not completely comfortable as a black man in the sport and feels microaggressions exist.

“Tennis needs voices that are not saying ‘everything is OK’. Because everything isn’t OK,” he says.

“We need to widen the pool from which we can pick and, importantly, ensure people stay in the sport longer. Then it will become more representative from playing level to leadership roles.

“We need to see more, for lack of a better word, color because it is very white.”

Uma Iyer, a 41-year-old Indian woman who coaches in Edinburgh, agrees.

She says her daughter Aadya is “one of two brown kids” in her Under-12s national group, despite describing the Scottish capital as having a “big Indian crowd”.

Uma Iyer, seen here coaching at her club in Edinburgh, is working with the LTA as part of its inclusion, diversity, equity and accessibility (IDEA) group. The group includes almost 50 other people from diverse backgrounds within the sport

“In her school class there are 25 to 30 kids, with about 10 of them of Indian or south Asian descent. There are Indian kids here but they aren’t finding their way through to tennis,” she says.

Iyer says putting information on Facebook about Aadya’s experiences has encouraged others into the sport.

“I feel a path to success matters a lot to many Indian people,” she said. “Are you going to do it recreationally or is there some form of outcome. Culturally we like to see some outcome.

“I put up a video of Aadya playing at a county cup and friends of mine starting talking. They were saying ‘Aadya plays well so I should get my kid to try’.

“That’s the thing: you see someone like you there and then you do it. You need to role model it.”

(14% of the UK population is of a diverse ethnic background, according to 2011 census)
Officials (800-900 people) – 3% Elite players (84) – 26%
Accredited coaches (5,700) – 4% Monthly participants (1.3m) – twenty%
Volunteers (11,500) – 5% Yearly participants (4m) – 16%

‘Boys don’t face as many barriers as girls’

While tennis has had a long line of female global superstars – Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka following the likes of Martina Navratilova and Steffi Graf as role models – this has not translated into equal gender representation in Britain.

The number of women coaching remains particularly low, while participation levels among more casual players are below the population percentage.

Iyer says the pathway from playing as a child and continuing into adulthood is more difficult for teenage girls than it is for their male peers.

“Boys don’t have as much of a barrier, mentally and physically, they grow differently. Girls struggle to have the same momentum once they hit puberty,” she says.

These barriers can include a fear of judgment or lacking confidence, as well as the effects of periods and contraceptive pills.

Judy Murray is trying to break down obstacles through the ‘She Rallies’ and ‘Miss Hits’ campaigns she founded in partnership with the LTA.

A former Scottish national player who coached her Grand Slam-winning sons Andy and Jamie as children, Judy wants the schemes to “empower” British women and “expand” the number involved in tennis.

Iyer says she has faced sexism while coaching.

“When people talk about technical things and strategies they look at the man.

“They try to be patronizing too, asking: ‘You are working full-time, why do you want to do coaching?’ or ‘You have got two children, will you be able to make time for this?'”

(50.9% of the UK population is female, according to 2011 census)
Officials (800-900 people) – 35% Elite players (84) – 49%
Accredited coaches (5,700) – 24% Monthly participants (1.3m) – 30%
Volunteers (11,500) – Four. Five% Yearly participants (4m) – 40%

‘Would they not like the fact I was disabled – or respect me?’

With Britons like Jordanne Whiley and Alfie Hewett winning Grand Slam wheelchair titles, there are role models in disability tennis.

As well as wheelchair tennis, the LTA offers provision through its Open Court programexternal-link for the deaf and hearing impaired, blind and visually impaired, and people with learning disabilities.

Dominic Iannotti was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome as a four-year-old. Now 23, the Scot is ranked the world’s leading learning disability tennis player.

A full-time coach, Iannotti teaches people of all ages and abilities in his hometown of Prestwick, including sessions for children with learning disabilities.

Dominic Iannotti hits a return
Iannotti, who also plays in mainstream events, says some learning disability players are given assistance by umpires with the scoring or where to serve from

In 2015, Iannotti joined the Great Britain Learning Disability programme. That’s when he became more open about his disability.

To be eligible, players have to do an IQ Test – it has to be under 75 – and have been diagnosed under the age of 18.

As well as raising money for learning disability charities, Iannotti was targeting a place on the British team at the Special Olympics in Los Angeles and the World Intellectual Impairment Sport Global Games in Ecuador.

“Only a small amount of people knew what I was doing. I was afraid people might treat me differently,” he said.

“But then I thought I could make a change in people’s lives and inspire them to take up tennis. I thought what’s the worst that could happen? Would they not like the fact I had a disability or respect me? I took a chance and the response has been incredible.”

(18% of the UK population has a disability or long-term health problem, according to 2011 census)
Officials (800-900 people) – 4% Elite players (84) – twenty%
Accredited coaches (5,700) – one% Monthly participants (1.3m) – 18%
Volunteers (11,500) – 6% Yearly participants (4m) – eleven%

Class discrimination? Or available to everyone?

Largely because of Wimbledon’s upper-class roots, the regular presence of Royals and time-old traditions often referred to as ‘stuffy’, tennis is often considered a ‘posh’ sport in Britain.

Former England footballer Gary Neville and Andy Burnham, the Mayor of Greater Manchester, were fairly explicit in that belief when they criticized the government’s decision to allow a capacity crowd at the Wimbledon finals while many coronavirus restrictions remain.

Neville retweeted a comment which claimed it was “class discrimination in plain sight”.

All England Club chief executive Sally Bolton said she “did not recognize” Wimbledon as being elitist, having previously spoken about the event’s desire to “reach broader and more diverse audiences”.

The cost of playing is often cited as a barrier, but LTA boss Lloyd stresses anyone can pick up a racquet and “play anywhere and anyway, with a makeshift net or garage door.”

As part of its inclusion strategy, the LTA will start collecting data on the socio-economic background of those involved. Currently it does not have data in this area, nor relating to sexual orientation and age.

There are a number of long-established LGBT tennis groups around the country, including the South London Smashersexternal-link and Manchester-based Northern Aces.external-link

“It gives us a sense of belonging and well-being from being able to be our ‘authentic selves’ when playing a sport that we all love,” says Eira Guest, a Northern Aces committee member.

“The problem is middle-class, white, stale, male, small conservative attitudes do still run pretty deep in the leagues. We have three successful teams but still face thinly veiled passive aggression.

“There is a lot of catching up to do. But after 20 years of knocking at the door at least the lights are now on.”

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