Tennis coach Ben Neal urges Ulster kids to take up the sport at an early age

Coach Ben Neal places a great importance on young tennis players learning the key skills of the game at an early age.
Coach Ben Neal places a great importance on young tennis players learning the key skills of the game at an early age.

Ben Neal’s dreams of becoming a professional tennis player were quashed at an early age and when he arrived in Ulster from England he was told he would have to go and look for a job in the sport.

But, fortunately, 18 years on, he is doing very nicely thank you although the only way he will be attending the likes of Wimbledon will be as a spectator.

Hertfordshire-born and bred Neal decided to up and leave his home in England and he is now Academy Director at the Boat Club in Belfast.

He is also employed by the sports governing body here, Ulster Tennis, as Under 10 Co-Ordinator.

Neal also coaches players across a wide range of ages and abilities and will shortly be taking a keen interest in a variety of summer schemes taking place at the Boat Club.

Now happily married to a local woman, Pamela, the couple have two sons, Ben (5) and Conor (2) and a daughter Anna (7).

However when he first arrived in the province he found work hard to come by and was more or less told to stand on his own two feet.

Then Ulster Development Officer and now close friend, Jim Watt, told Neal to ‘go and find your own work’ and that’s precisely what he did.

Back home in the quaint village of Hertford Heath, the young Neal was a talented tennis player and, like many children, harbored dreams of turning professional when he got older.

But sadly it didn’t turn out that way when his parents told him with brutal honesty that he wasn’t going to make it and honesty is a policy that has stuck with him until the present day when he chats to parents.

“I played for Hoddlestown Tennis Club in the Hertfordshire League and it was of a pretty high standard along the lines of senior interprovincial level over here,” he recalled.

“When I arrived in Belfast I eventually found a job coaching at Fruithill on the Falls Road along with Louise Tuff and assistant to her at the Boat Club.

“When Louise left the post I took over and I have been there ever since and I really enjoy working there and I still do plenty of hands-on coaching.

“I do up to 20 hours a week and I work with players aged four to 18, adults who play at a recreational level and with (high) performance juniors.

“The facilities at the Boat Club are second to none and I am in charge of the overall coaching programme as well as doing some myself.

“There is a wide range of coaching and a relatively modern development is what is known as ‘cardio tennis’ which involves a variety of tennis drills for levels from beginners through intermediate to advanced.

“People from the age of 20 to 60 take part and many of the beginners played when they were much younger and then decided they wanted to start playing again.”

Neal played on the tournament scene here until injury curtailed his career and he once held eventual winner Frank Ofori, the then Ghana Davis Cup player to a creditable 4-6, 5-7 margin at the prestigious Ulster Championship.

But now he concentrates exclusively on coaching and he says he enjoys his role as Under 10 Co-Ordinator with Ulster Tennis.

It’s an area which the governing body has put increasing emphasis on as they strive to increase participation levels in the sport in days when there are so many counter attractions for the young and young at heart.

“The kids play on smaller sized courts which get bigger as they get older with modified equipment that makes playing easier as it can be a difficult sport to pick up,” Neal explained.

“We have three levels, red orange and green for the various age groups at under 10 level as they progress and get older and the emphasis is on developing good technique, tactics and, most importantly, a love for the sport.

“You can usually spot who is going to be good from an early stage but, at the same time, you can’t write anybody off and say they won’t be good.

“The most important thing, I believe, is to be honest with parents when they ask you about their children’s ability or otherwise.

“It’s a very rewarding job and it is very satisfying when you see a kid making progress and becoming a better player.

“For example, I had Conor O’Kane from when he was a five year-old and he went on to become ranked 68 in Europe as an under 14.”

O’Kane was a multi-talented youngster who also excelled at rugby and squash and Neal says he encourages kids, either directly or through their parents, not to concentrate solely on one sport.

However he is fully aware that it can be a double edged sword as drop off levels among girls, in particular, can be alarming when they get older.

Entry levels among girls and women in senior tournaments are traditionally much lower than among their male counterparts and this has been a feature for many, many years.

“Tennis is very much an individual sport and girls, I think, can be more self conscious than boys as they get older and I think we lose some of them to team sports like hockey and netball when they hit secondary education,” Neal continued.

But with a new tournament scene exclusively for Under 10s due to start in the autumn and financial assistance available for clubs, which met certain criteria, to concentrate on coaching players in that age group, the governing body and Ben Neal are working hard to reverse the trend by starting ‘em young!