Around this time of year, as Wimbledon begins, it becomes harder and harder to find an empty tennis court. Fairweather players slip out to parks and recreation grounds to indulge their part-time hobby, before swiftly discovering they're not as talented as they thought by the time Finals day comes round. So it's good news for all of us that a brand new suite of tennis courts opened this weekend, and they've got plenty of space. I speak of course of the final piece in the jigsaw of London's Olympic sporting legacy, the Lee Valley Hockey and Tennis Centre. And if you missed hearing about its launch, I fear you're not alone. [12 photos]
The Lee Valley Hockey and Tennis Centre is located at Eton Manor, at the very northern end of the Olympic Park beyond the Velodrome. No sports were based here during the Olympics, the bridge across the A12 was blocked off - instead the site came into its own during the Paralympics. Eton Manor was the bespoke venue for wheelchair tennis, an amazing sport where the only concession is that the ball's allowed to bounce twice. A few courts were set up, the largest surrounded by temporary grandstands, and a fully accessible clubhouse building plonked in the middle. It didn't get much use in 2012, but that's OK because the architects were planning ahead and applying the "build it once" philosophy. The main Paralympic tennis court has been replaced by an outdoor hockey pitch, with six tennis courts and another hockey pitch created on the remainder of the site. Throw in four indoor tennis courts and you have a venue that's thinking big, if not shouting loud.
The Centre was officially opened last Thursday, but threw open its doors to the public for the first time on Saturday with a free Family Fun Day. A few families turned up. I wandered in from Leyton, through the echoingly large car park, and woke up the ice cream man by requesting a 99. Tennis was underway on the outside courts, be that full size or distinctly mini (utilising giant blue inflatables). The emphasis was very much on participation, on getting kids involved in sport, and the sight would no doubt have warmed Seb Coe's heart. A camera crew wandered round taking shots that'd make the place look active, but there was plenty of room on the outside courts had you and yours turned up.
One admirable feature is the reinstatement of the Eton Manor war memorials in the plaza between the courts and the main entrance. This site originally belonged to the Eton Manor Boys' Club, established in the 1920s to provide sporting facilities for underprivileged local youth. Several met their deaths in World War II, and were proudly remembered in stone, one monolith carved with the words of Churchill beneath a two-finger salute. The memorial and its plaques were safely stashed during the Olympic upgrade, and now stand in a respectfully quiet corner where they can't be missed. Meanwhile Carol Ann Duffy has written a poem to remember the hope the original establishment brought to the area, and her words appear in gold on silver on three panels opposite the A12 bridge.
I'm not sure quite how open Saturday's Open Day was meant to be, but it felt like the staff were geared up to expect racket-bearing and stick-happy kids, not wandering adults. I pushed one door open to find myself in the corridor past the changing rooms, which I nipped past rapidly to peer into the indoor tennis hall. This is a huge space, easily divided into quarters, eighths and even sixteenths depending on the size of the players. The roof is supported by the largest single span glulam beams in Europe, each 40 metres long - a fact I know because the architects had left a pile of colour-stapled press releases on a table for Thursday's press launch, and nobody had thought to collect the leftovers. I'll quote their words without comment, I suspect there's no need.
The proper public route inside the building is up the stairs to the hockey viewing area. Blimey that pitch is blue, much as appeared nearby during the Olympics but without the bright magenta surround. The rebranded pitch has Union Jack stripes in the corners, which is either a very smart touch or a means of upsetting international teams when they come to play. And there are several international hockey matches planned, including the European Hockey Championships next summer and the Women's World Cup in 2018. More pressingly the Investec Cup arrives in three weeks time, with ticket prices rising to £35 on the Sunday for a day of four consecutive finals.
Nothing so technically thrilling was taking place on Saturday. A game-and-a-half of something less than hockey was underway when I turned up, possibly Quicksticks which is a junior version designed to attract the under 11s and keep them fit. Again the centre's motives are laudable, and I suspect local schools are going to lap up the sporting opportunities that have suddenly appeared on their doorstep. But the crowds in the grandstands for the Open Day numbered barely twenty, mostly parents watching their offspring wearing themselves out. A pair of food vendors brought in to dispense Mom's Fabulous Hot Dogs to spectators went almost entirely untroubled, and the hospitality terrace overlooking Hackney Marshes was entirely vacant.
The marshes are looking good again, by the way, with the East Marsh almost restored from coach park to grass. This is fenced off at present to support final growth before the football season kicks in again, and a brand new elevated bank of terracing should provide spectators with an impressive overview. A connection has finally been made between the northern half of Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park and the surrounding roads, including the vibrantly orange footbridge and a long awaited path down to street level. I'm pleased to report that the wildflower mix is returning to Olympic levels of dazzle, not just here but in several other corners of the entire park. And blimey, doesn't the mountain bike course round these northern extremities look fun? Vegetation on the trails is still bedding in, but the strip north of Ruckholt Way is already striking. I watched two cyclists bump through the undergrowth, the first exclaiming "Wooo! Wooo! Wooo!" like some kind of saddled orgasm, until he reached the far end of the embankment and couldn't work out where the hell the circuit went next. Does anyone actually pay the official £6 for a mountain bike wristband, by the way? The VeloPark provides zero supervision in the more remote parts of the five mile circuit, which is the majority of it, so who'd not turn up and enjoy the thrills for nothing?
Anyway, as I said, the Lee Valley Hockey and Tennis Centre is now open, and offering taster sessions over the next week or so to attract punters in. Once properly up and running hockey sessions will cost about £4, while tennis court hire will cost rather more. The outdoor courts are priced at £10 an hour on summer weekends, or £8 off-peak, while the indoor courts rise to £20-£25 in the winter. A number of coaching sessions are available, for adults as well as for children, because the focus at LVHTC is rightly on improving talent. And disability tennis is a priority too, extending the Paralympic legacy in the hope of boosting our medal hopes in future Games. I think the venue will be a hard sell, because the Velodrome and Aquatic Centre have a much higher profile, and tennis and especially hockey are more easily overlooked. But hopefully the place will be a success, not just this summer but for decades to come.