I started playing tennis when I was about four. If you have been involved in a sport like tennis for as long as I have, in a country like Pakistan, there is one question that you’ll get to hear a lot. Why has a sport so internationally acclaimed not received the due recognition it deserves in Pakistan? While I can go around in circles talking about how tennis, like most other sports in our country, is victimized by the monopoly of cricket (a sad fact, to say the least), it would be prematurely inadequate not to address the root cause of the problem here. One word: accessibility.
Tennis, as a sport, has come a long way from the pre-partition, colonial days when only the rich and the most elite were privileged enough to play. However, even to this day, tennis remains largely an elitist sport in Pakistan, predominantly played by those sectors of our society that either have memberships to fancy clubs or belong to professional coaches’ families. As for the common man wanting to pick up tennis, well, there simply aren’t enough facilities and opportunities to allow him to do so.
So, the question is how do we make tennis available to the masses? My simple answer: build more public courts. You would be surprised to know that there are literally no public tennis courts in Pakistan. In Lahore, the majority of the tennis courts come under the jurisdiction of clubs. The Punjab Lawn Tennis Association (PLTA) Academy at Bagh-e-Jinnah is one of the few national tennis centers existing in Pakistan, but even there, if you are not a nationally ranked player, a membership fee is imposed upon you. Similarly, we have the PTF Complex in Islamabad, comprising of a total of nine clay courts and one hard court, which largely meets the requirements of training and competition of national level players.
But, these two set-ups, with all their privileges cannot be termed as public facilities where anybody can just walk in and get a game. So is tennis then really out of the reach for the masses in Pakistan?
Let me highlight the potential impact a public facility could have on the future career of those from humble backgrounds. Take the example of Serena and Venus Williams: two American tennis players, in fact legends of the game. Even if you don’t know much about tennis, these are two names you most certainly associate with the sport. Unlike most tennis prodigies in America who have the full backing of the system, these girls started out with absolutely nothing. Growing up in a hard scrabbled neighborhood amidst gang violence, these sisters learnt the traits of tennis on the public courts of Compton, California, just because they did not have the means to afford something better. They had a dream to be the best in the world, and we all know they eventually realized it.
There is no reason why something of a similar sort cannot be introduced in Pakistan, not only to nurture new talent but also to give our youth a viable and affordable option away from getting into wrong company.
From a practical point of view, it is not an all together improbable idea. If we get our math right and give or take a few meters here or there, we can fit in approximately 20 tennis courts inside a cricket field. I am not trying to make a case for less cricket being played in a country that literally eats, sleeps and breathes this sport, but imagine the possibilities if within much less space than that required for a cricket field we could have more young people active at very affordable rates and in a game which is easily organized. There is no guarantee that we will be producing Grand Slam champions in the next few years, but more people will be encouraged to play, thereby increasing the probability of better quality tennis players. The idea is to bring tennis to the public, get people involved and to make tennis a household sport.
All across the country, small tennis facilities comprising of at least two tennis courts should be built in different areas with a nominal fee of 10 bucks fixed for using the courts and the equipment. Tennis for a tenner. It certainly has a nice ring to it. This could have far-reaching effects in the development of tennis in Pakistan. While creating a culture for sports in our society, who knows, we might produce another Aisam Ul Haq or two.
So, let’s build tennis courts for a better future. Let’s play tennis for a tenner!