Serving up a summer of fun – Parks Tennis goes from strength to strength
Every summer thousands of children avail of the chance to experience the game
Parks Tennis: every summer it attracts a huge throng of 25,000 children to tennis courts nationwide. Photo: Sports
For the people who originated the idea, there was a feeling the image of the sport required some readjusting.
Tennis needed to reach out. The sense that the sport could be more inclusive came 38 years ago. But the spark behind Parks Tennis was simple.
Create affordable tennis that was open to all kids in a safe environment around the playgrounds and courts of Ireland.
Allow those who wouldn’t normally be drawn towards membership of tennis clubs access to the game and strip it of almost everything but a racquet and ball .
Modest at the beginning, Parks Tennis now operates all year around in the cities. And every summer it also attracts a huge throng of 25,000 children to tennis courts nationwide, spanning all four provinces.
But the success of Parks Tennis is not measured by how many professional players have come through the system or made it onto Ireland’s Davis or Federation Cup teams.
In the different world that exists in the paid ranks talent must come accompanied by the €50,000-€60,000 or so a year it costs to put a young player on the road playing Futures and Challenger events.
For the volunteers who run Parks Tennis, engagement and numbers are the hard currency.
And occasionally players do seep through. James Cluskey, who this week is in Blois in France playing doubles in a Challenger event (€45,000 prize fund), followed his brother and sister into a public park in Swords over 20 years ago.
“I can’t remember when I started, maybe six-years-old,” says the Irish Davis Cup player.
“I did it every summer the whole way through until I got more serious and got into Leinster squads. I’m 28 now so it’s hard to recall but I remember my mum always watching Wimbledon.
“My first experience was going to St Anne’s to play and getting the bus there with all the other kids. My brother and sister who are older than me played and I followed them. I did well and I liked it and I stayed on.
“It was really the gateway to playing, had a major impact on me playing tennis. There’s a lot of players who have played in the Parks like Johnny McCormack, who is a coach in the National Tennis Centre. They have a lot of respect for the program and what it has done for Irish tennis.”
Cluskey is ranked at 160 in the world in doubles. Normally he plays with fellow Irish player David O’Hare but this week O’Hare is in Ireland. But as he travels the world Cluskey sees the ground Ireland still needs to claim in terms of perception and the place of the sport in the community.
In France particularly, there are courts everywhere, many of them clay. Tennis is visible and just as public as it is private. In France tourists can get temporary membership of clubs for a modest fee.
Bit elitistStephane Robert
“Everyone here just loves tennis and everyone plays. The tournament this week I think they have 60 or 70 volunteers. In Ireland and England tennis is seen in a different light compared to other countries and the Parks goes a long way to changing that. Players have a lot of respect for the program and what it has done for Irish tennis.”
Kay Lonergan in the Clontarf office is one of the sisterhood who put in the hours and makes much of it happen. Although there are 28 volunteers, the Irish Sports Council, Tennis Ireland and various local authorities administer the 160 venues across 32 counties.
All children irrespective of previous tennis experience are invited to participate.
There are costs. But the idea is to ensure it’s as inexpensive as possible for girls and boys who participate, from age five to 17. They can play for €45 in July for an hour per weekdays in Dublin and other areas, to €65 for three hours daily for two weeks in Cork. In some areas it is as low as €30 for the month. Cheap tennis, who thought of that?