As the French Open reaches an exciting climax and Brits start queuing for their usual emotional rollercoaster ride at Wimbledon it’s safe to say that the tennis season is well and truly upon us.
While for most the notion of becoming a racquet-wielding world number one was crushed years ago in a haze of wild stroke play, on court strops and abject defeat at the hands of more talented competitors, for one man the dream became a reality...albeit under slightly unusual circumstances.
Rashid Ahmad is the creator of Touch Tennis, a simplified alternative to the mainstream game, which allows skilful play to flourish at the expense of the ‘wham bam, thank you Mam’ power-hitting of Rafael Nadal and company. Played on a reduced size court with foam balls and smaller headed racquets, Touch Tennis’ regulations aim to foster long, intense rallies, clever angle play and an energetic experience which its inventor claims leaves people of all ages ‘hooked.’
Eager to learn more Sport.co.uk caught up with Rashid to discuss how Touch Tennis has blossomed since he created it in his back garden, why it is a great alternative to the real thing, how he ruled the game as world number one but has subsequently lost his crown, why Pat Cash won’t accept his invitation for a match and how people across the country can get involved.
Good morning Rashid, let’s talk Touch Tennis. So you invented the game and were subsequently the world’s best player for five years. But what’s happened, why have you slipped down the rankings?
(Laughs) That’s not the point. Basically people other than my three-year-old daughter started playing! That’s pretty much how...
Playing you daughter was how the game came about isn’t it? You created a court in your back garden...
Yeah that’s right. My daughter was two-and-a-half-years-old and I set up a court in my garden not realising there was already a game called mini-tennis. I just used to hit with her, until one of my friends came round and we realised we had more fun playing Touch Tennis than actual tennis down at our local club. I found that the guys who I would normally beat at tennis were giving me a really good run for my money at this game. It just grew from there. I then moved out to Surrey and had more space. First I played on grass but then I commissioned somebody to build a full size (Touch Tennis) court which is 12 metres x 6 metres.
Has it been easy getting people and traditional clubs interested in the game?
At first it was really, really difficult, but much to the surprise of many people, the Lawn Tennis Association [LTA] have been amazingly behind it. They’ve been really pushing it. In fact they put two official courts in place at the National Tennis Centre [NTC]. They’ve been very supportive.
Why is Touch Tennis such an attractive alternative?
The great thing about it Touch Tennis is that no matter how good or bad you are at normal tennis, and this applies to club players as well as mere mortals, you will be at the same equivalent level inside five minutes of playing. I guarantee that to anybody. The proof is in the pudding.
I dominated the rankings as Number One for 238 straight weeks, winning 20 conecutive Grand Slam titles...until along came Marcos Angelini. He hadn’t played tennis for 15 years and in the first game he ever played he beat me! The reality bit me pretty hard that day, but I’m consoling myself with the idea that I had to pass the baton to the next generation...even though he’s older than me. (Laughs)
Have you had any well known tennis players have a go?
So far [former British no.1] Jeremy Bates, former under-18 British no.1 Marcus Willis, Chris Eaton, who reached the second round of Wimbledon in 2008, Emily Webley-Smith who is playing Wimbledon this year and a certain Australian named Cash.
Wow, Cash is a big name...
Well...editor’s note...I’m referring to Pat Cash’s son - Jett Cash. (laughs)
Surely you’ll be able to get Cash Senior involved if you’ve already bagged his son?
I’ve offered it to him. I met him at the Royal Albert Hall and suggested a game but he backed away saying something about fearing a man who had been so dominant for so many years! You should probably get a direct quote from him on that though...
Now, if I want to have a go at Touch Tennis, how much would it cost me to get all the necessary equipment to set up my own court?
Maximum figure would be £100 and for that you could get a court going in your back garden. If you want to buy the official Touch Tennis line markings which you can use on a driveway or tarmac that would be another £40 or £50, but to be honest you can do it with masking tape! It’s really easy to do.
There are already several clubs and places where you can play on purpose built courts. What are your hopes and ambitions for the sport? Do you think it can become a mainstream activity?
The dream is that it gets people playing tennis again, particularly those who have stopped playing. To get back into tennis, if you don’t have a regular hitting partner, it takes a while to get your eye-hand coordination back.
I don’t necessarily see Touch Tennis as a massive mainstream sport but it would be great for more people to be playing it. I’d love nothing more than for it to have more players than tennis, but, you know you’ve got to be realistic.
You only have to glance through the rules and regulations on the official website and it becomes very clear that sportsmanship is incredibly important. Point deductions for swearing, disqualification for racquet smashing etc...
I found that there was a real issue when I was playing in club matches with sportsmanship. It was shockingly bad watching grown men and women setting an appalling example for juniors. It was OK to smash racquets; it was fine to scream profanities on court even though they were right next to kids. I thought, let’s just put a stop to it right now. We will not allow profanities, we will not allow abuse. It’s a blanket ban. If you break a racquet you are out of the tournament there and then.
There are videos on the official site and on YouTube of foreign Grand Slams. How did word spread abroad?
Pretty much all competitive matches are played in this country [even though the tournaments use exotic foreign names]. That being said the Australian Open will next year be played in Australia. They’ve built three mini-courts suitable for Touch Tennis at the Sydney Olympic Park where they hold the Medibank Open and competitions are now being held.
Do you fear an Australian invasion in the rankings given their burgeoning enthusiasm for the sport?
There are a few players in the top thirty rankings, but I doubt they’ll ever be top ten. As we know from other sports the Australians are usually just a flash in the pan...particularly when you look their recent cricket history. (Laughs)
Given that this is something that started in your back garden; did you have any idea of how it might spread across the globe?
The truth is I had absolutely no idea it would get this big...
You must be very proud of its growth?
I’m proud of all the players that have kept committed and kept attending the tournaments in really awkward places. I’m not proud of myself! I’m just really proud of the players who are turning up to events in Ipswich, in Staffordshire and alike. Some travel all over the country just because I’ve abused them and given them grief saying ‘You must play!’ (Laughs)
If you could play anybody at Touch Tennis who would it be?
There is only one player out there who I would want to play, simply because I’d like to show him what it is like to get a really good ‘duffing’... and that is Lleyton Hewitt.
I thought you might say John McEnroe or someone similarly feisty?
No, McEnroe is too quiet. I don’t like people like that. Hewitt and I would be the loudest match you’ve ever heard. (Laughs)
Having watched you playing on YouTube I’ve no doubt that is true!
Thanks so much for talking to us Rashid and all the best for the future with Touch Tennis. It looks great and I’m sure it can only get more popular.
To learn more about Touch Tennis, visit www.touchtennis.com