By Penny Mickelsen

Barry Community Tennis Club

GROWING up in Barry in the 1980s, Tennis meant two weeks of Wimbledon mania and the odd knockabout on gravelly concrete courts, trying to dodge the man with the clipboard who would randomly drop into Gladstone or Romilly Park to take your court fee (“we were just looking”).

Even in school, tennis was just 6 lessons a year from a teacher with a very rudimentary understanding of the rules, and limited knowledge of the technical aspects, and it was a sport that not even the most sporty of kids got particularly involved with. I didn’t know anyone who played regularly except for bat & ball in the park, on the beach or against a wall. Nothing resembling the tennis I witnessed at Wimbledon came anywhere near my life.

For those two weeks in June/July though, my life was tennis. I resented when the cricket took precedence on TV, and celebrated if the news was switched to BBC2 because there was a match in progress that was too important to interrupt. On one particularly hot July, I remember trying to put my portable TV in the window facing the garden so I could sunbathe without missing any failed miserably, so I retreated back indoors to the alternate reality of a life of strawberries and cream, perfectly maintained lawns, and pristine whites.

Following the tournament, it always felt like there was a gaping entertainment hole that remained unfilled for the next 50 weeks until the next Wimbledon championships came along.

At that time, I had only a vague concept that there were other tennis tournaments around the world (most of them played, would you believe it, on surfaces that are not grass?!), and had no idea that tennis is actually one of the few professional sports that doesn’t really have an ‘off-season,’ with players competing around the world throughout the year. I did look forward to an extra tennis fix during the Olympics years, but that was the full extent of my involvement with the only sport that really interested me as a kid.

For many, the image of tennis as an elitist sport available only to a select few still persists, but my experience in recent years profoundly challenges that and has shown me that tennis is both accessible and affordable, and that the Wimbledon-whites image is reserved for a very small minority of those actually involved in the sport.

While my own involvement in the sport continued just as occasional trips to the local park courts and obsessive viewing of Wimbledon each summer, once I had children, my husband and I decided to look for ways to get them involved with playing tennis ‘properly’ and searched for local classes where they might learn how to play. My husband had had a few lessons as a teenager in Bridgend, but I confess I had never even considered that coaching was an option because it had never entered my own sphere of experience (swimming and gymnastics lessons and playing for rugby or football teams were the only sports activities I had been aware of for children).

We found lessons that were practically on our doorstep at Barry Island and my adventure with tennis went into overdrive.

I discovered that within a few miles of my home, there were at least 4 well-established tennis clubs (1 in Barry, 1 in Dinas Powys, and 2 in Penarth) as well as more public courts that I previously knew nothing about (Millwood and Wenvoe, in addition to Romilly Park and Gladstone Park), so the opportunities to get involved in an organised setting or under your own steam were significant. Why then, I had to ask (and continue to ask), was tennis not more widely known locally, and why wasn’t participation higher?

With kids in the local school, and as a volunteer and, later, coach at local clubs, I questioned a lot of families about their attitudes to tennis. For the vast majority of parents at Barry schools, they had no idea that tennis was even an option for a regular activity for their children, as it was not something they had ever been involved with themselves and if they thought about it, they assumed it would be expensive, with club membership fees, racquets and ‘whites’ to consider.

For many of those already involved with some of the local clubs, their involvement had either stemmed from living locally to a club, or from word of mouth (family or friends played there).

My mission was therefore twofold: to make Barry families aware of the tennis facilities available to them, and to break down the preconceptions about the affordability and accessibility of the sport for ‘ordinary’ people.