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Shropshire tennis aces shine on national stage

By Nick Elwell | Sport | Published:

Tennis Shropshire chair Simon Jones believes there is much for the county’s tennis community to be proud of after Keith Smith and Alex Cleland both made the top three in their categories at a prestigious national awards ceremony.

Boughey Gardens tennis club coach of 40 years Keith Smith MBE

The Shropshire County Championship also featured among the finalists at the virtual LTA Tennis Awards after Shropshire enjoyed a hat-trick of regional winners in April.

Further recognition came the county’s way during the hour-long national ceremony with Bob Higgins, the chairman of Alveley Tennis Club, the recipient of an LTA Meritorious Service Award.

The virtual awards night also featured a special tribute to Shropshire’s Cathie Sabin, the LTA’s first female president, who sadly passed away in May.

Cathie was instrumental in the launch of the annual LTA Awards and was always so passionate about recognising the efforts of the many thousands of inspirational individuals involved in tennis.

The LTA received more than 2,100 nominations from across England, Scotland and Wales for the various award categories this year.

National winners are usually announced each summer at Wimbledon, but with this year’s Championships cancelled owing to Covid-19, the 2020 presentation ceremony was instead a virtual one, hosted by LTA president Dave Rawlinson and presented online by Leon Smith, Great Britain’s Davis Cup captain.

A number of guest presenters, including Judy Murray, Gordon Reid and Annabel Croft, announced the winners remotely.

Smith, involved with Newport’s Boughey Gardens Tennis Club since 1958, and Cleland, from Shifnal, were selected as regional winners for the Midlands, in the lifetime achievement and official of the year categories respectively, in April.

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Their dedication was further highlighted by impressively making the top three at the national ceremony.

The seven regional winners in each category were reduced to a final three before the national winner was revealed, with the Shropshire duo both securing runners-up spots.

Tennis Shropshire chair Jones said: “This is the most successful year we’ve ever had in the LTA Awards and it’s magnificent.

“For three of our 10 category winners to be recognised as regional winners and to be in the running for national awards is some feat.

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“It shows how many wonderful volunteers we have in the county and to have such recognition on a national scale is testament to that.”

“I phoned all three of our national nominees before the event and told them that irrespective of what happened, it was an outstanding achievement for a rural county like Shropshire to have such a strong representation in the national awards. It meant that we had won already. It’s just phenomenal.

“For Keith to be selected in the top three nationally in the lifetime achievement category is very special. You only have to look at the amount of years people in contention for that award have devoted to tennis, with the four nominations for the award here in Shropshire having a combined 193 years of service to tennis in the county.

“We are also very proud of Alex. He’s a great role model and to see what he is achieving as an official is fantastic. To make the top three nationally is very deserved recognition.

“We are also proud of the success of the Shropshire County Championships in being chosen as a regional winner to be national finalists in such a strong category as competition of the year.

“It’s largely down to the efforts of Simon Haddleton and Amy Dannatt as they have done an excellent job with the event.

“It was also fantastic to see Bob Higgins receive an LTA Meritorious Service Award. It is so richly deserved because he has worked tirelessly supporting tennis in Shropshire for so many years.

“It was lovely that a lot of people across the county from many different clubs tuned into watch the awards night and support our Shropshire representatives.”

Simon added the special tribute paid by the LTA to Cathie Sabin during the awards ceremony was fitting.

“It was wonderful,” he said. “For people around the county to be able to watch and listen to the lovely tribute paid by the LTA to one of our own was very special.”

Keith Smith served Boughey Gardens as chairman and secretary, while he was also head coach for 43 years, with an impressive number of junior players involved at the club.

He represented the county as a player, with his many other roles including producing the Shropshire handbook for five years and coaching the county’s boys squad for more than 20 years.

Keith was awarded an MBE in 2004 in recognition of his contribution to tennis and also Newport’s business community.

Alex Cleland now has his ITF White Badge after passing Level 2 school in Georgia. He has chaired his first matches at Wimbledon in the junior events and line umpired at the US Open for the first time.

Having exceptionally high standards, Alex impressed with his professionalism when he umpired at the International Schools Federation World School Championships in Italy last year.

He also provided training, mentoring and leadership to the other umpires and was asked by the tournament referee to deliver morning briefings to fellow umpires.

The Shropshire County Championships continues to thrive with 192 players taking part last year.

The tournament has evolved to create a celebration of tennis across Shropshire, focusing on doubles, with both junior and adult players from across the county encouraged to get involved.

Successfully introducing a county circuit of grade four competitions in the run up to the event has led to players from more rural areas of Shropshire taking part.

Bob Higgins, the chairman of Alveley Tennis Club, near Bridgnorth, since 1997, was nominated for an LTA Meritorious Service Award for his enthusiasm, commitment, involvement and voluntary service to tennis at both club and county level for more than 40 years. He was also named as LTA Team Tennis Organiser of the Year in 2018.

Meanwhile, nominations for the 2021 LTA Tennis Awards will open on October 1.

Nick Elwell

By Nick Elwell
Grassroots Sports Editor

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