Not many people would have predicted the dizzy heights reached by young tennis players at St Peter’s High School in Gloucester.
It has been a rags to riches tale that has seen youngsters take tennis from a scarred school car park on the back streets of an inner city state school to compete against the finest young tennis talent in the country.
Players from the school’s under 18 team matched up against teams who had players playing at Junior Wimbledon the previous week.
Opponents from 192 other schools, many of them dripping in funding and facilities, came and went, but St Peter’s made it through to the final 16.
But even more success was yet to come. The school ended up making the top six, an incredible achievement that has made the city proud.
Success would have been little more than a distant dream had it not been for the inspiration of one man.
Keiran Montagu founded the St Peter’s tennis academy nine years ago and works tirelessly to polish the rough diamonds that have harboured so much unbridled talent.
Jamie McDonald, who has since won fame for becoming the first man to run unaided across Canada, was one youngster to develop his skills there.
“It is incredible to see how far Kieran has taken the tennis academy, and also to think of how far it could potentially go,” he said.
“When Kieran took me on as a ten year old he believed in me and gave me a chance. He taught me how to coach other kids and I went on to work at his academy.
“It was an amazing experience and he has helped me get to where I am today. To think it has now been ranked six in the country is an incredible achievement.
“Kieran has given so many kids a chance of realising their dream, he deserves a hell of a lot of credit for what the academy has achieved.”
The under 18 boys tennis team and coaching staff at St. Peter’s High School should feel immensely proud of recently emerging as the highest performing state school in the UK.
Of the Top 16 teams who were in the finals, 13 were fee-paying independent schools with the capacity to ‘buy-in’ talent to represent them in competition.
Head coach Keiran said it is no surprise many of Britain’s top athletes hail from independent schools, that cherry pick the top talent from other schools around the country, lured by a scholarship incentive.
“The National Championships went a long way to demonstrate why the pupils want to stay here,” he said.
“They are proud to represent St. Peter’s. They have an unbreakable team spirit and a common belief that against all the odds they can be the best.
“Just a few years ago there was an even greater story at the same school with rugby union. Against all odds, St. Peter’s won the Daily Mail National Under 18 Schools Rugby title under the leadership of Dave Pointon.”
There is definitely something in the water at St Peter’s. And Keiran insists the school should be held up as an example by governing bodies of how to increase sporting participation and sporting excellence in young people.
The tennis project at St. Peter’s is particularly unique because for the most part, it takes place on playground tennis courts and in a covered barn. There the floor is sometimes slippery as it has the remainder of the pupils’ lunch on it.
There are no conventional tennis courts on site, yet all of the schools who finished above St. Peter’s at the recent National Championships either have purpose built indoor tennis centres or have access to a specialist facility as part of their curriculum.
The former chief executive of the Lawn Tennis Association, Roger Draper was invited up to St. Peter’s several times. Although he said he would visit, it never materialised.
That disappointment has not seen Keiran’s ambition to help produce the best waver.
“I would say there are a lot of similarities between St. Peter’s and a boxing gym,” he added.
“Not having the best of everything can make you more determined to succeed.
“We have been told for years by a lot of people that we are doing things wrong and that we couldn’t achieve anything from such poor facilities.
“To be fair, we still haven’t achieved anything – we haven’t won a National Schools title or had a pupil at Junior Wimbledon but we are moving in the right direction.
“I do believe if we had funding for our pupils to travel to compete internationally and indoor facilities, so that our training wasn’t restricted through the winter, we could achieve this.
“We have never received any kind of support and until this year, the LTA did not even offer us any sort of recognition that we were doing things well.
“There has also been a belief it is not about what facilities you have, it is what you make of them.
“It has been about getting the pupils to believe that ‘they can’ and not give them reasons why ‘they can’t.”