Ulster eyes new era, the American way
A wind of change is starting to blow through Ulster tennis as the governing body grasps the nettle and seeks to offer a brighter future for young, ambitious talent.
Tennis Ulster have just launched their new elite programme for 14 to 18-year-olds and named it the Ulster College Squad as they view it as the pathway to scholarships for the players at American universities – or even UK universities.
The scholarship route is seen as the perfect long term goal for players here and something that parents, who shell out a great deal of cash for coaching, can buy into as well.
The ambitious squad has been based at David Lloyd in Dundonald, thereby guaranteeing indoor facilities for the weekend training, with the three main coaches being the vastly experienced Louise Bothwell, Irish Federation Cup player Lynsey McCullough and graduate of the Bollettieri Academy Sam Armstrong.
Armstrong, who also coached American players on the WTA Tour after going through the American college scene with the University of Georgia, returned home to Belfast two years ago and has a deep belief that the new squad will pay off for the local players.
Armstrong, 33, said: "Bollettieri took me to a new level, it was just being around players who were at the top like Tommy Haas and Anna Kournikova.
"You wouldn't be hitting with them but they were training on the court beside you going through the same things, it's a totally different feel were everyone is pushing each other and that's what we're trying to do here.
"Having had much of the input into the squad, it's running the way I would see a US tennis college team run and train – really pushing each other, working together and trying to get the best out of each other – really competitive but really supportive as well.
"Training at that level and intensity, knowing when to push each other that little bit more and get that bit more out of each other ... it's training at that intensity so that when you're in the third set at 6-6 you know how to make that extra ball or make that winner."
The squad is a mix of some of the best boys and girls in the country, including 16-year-old Karola Bejenaru, now ranked 211 in the world, and Sam Bothwell who is seeking to follow in the successful footsteps of brother Peter, who is based at the Soto academy in southern Spain.
Already, Armstrong's fellow coach McCullough senses a new purpose and spirit among the players as they seek to move to raise their level and build towards being able to gain a scholarship. That will include an individual fitness regime for each player as well travelling together to international events.
McCullough said: "The difference straightaway is that the intensity is higher because all the kids are feeding off each other, you don't want to be the one the group who is seen as not trying.
"There's punishments as well, if you're late there's a punishment, if there's any swearing there's a punishment – that's important because if you're attitude is right in training then it should be right in matches and that's so important.
"I think it will make a massive difference because if they train at this intensity then they will improve far quicker.
"The College idea is a massive thing – the whole team thing is so different, if they can do that now then that's going to be a big plus when they get to college in the States.
"When I trained there was me and Emily Madill and maybe we pushed each other but with this kind of squad you can see it all the time and I wish I had a squad like this when I was coming through, it's great."
Armstrong is hoping that the fragmented nature of Ulster tennis, with the best players rarely coming together will be replaced with a greater sense of togetherness as Ulster players.
"At American colleges you get to play the individual matches but you get to play in a team format and you know that you're match counts just as much as the player at number one if you're at six and it gives kids a different outlook on tennis because can become quite a lonely sport
"We want to travel and we want to see everyone cheering on each other and now when we go to inter-pros we have better chance because we're training like this the whole year around.
"And we want to make sure this is an additional thing to what the players do in their clubs, it's not trying to take away from anyone.
"It's to bring them together but then they go back to their coaches and they can take feedback to their coaches or we can say to the coach hey we see they're struggling with this, maybe they can give that a look at this, so we want good communication."