Shambolic state of British Tennis

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I know this debate is normally limited to a couple of weeks in the middle of summer, but the shambolic state of British tennis is a year round problem. The fact that such an affluent, sport mad and well populated country that hosts the biggest tournament in the world, has such a pathetic record in producing world class singles players is inexcusable. In terms of the LTA system, Andy Murray is actually a case for the prosecution, not the defence. His own mother is a tennis coach and she kept him out of the LTA coaching system. Tim Henman was an extremely talented player of upper class breeding, that would’ve have probably reached the top five in the world no matter what the system he went through. The LTA certainly can’t take any credit for any of Greg Rusedski’s exploits. John Lloyd’s appearance in the final of the Australian Open came at a time when it was a major championship in name only, many of the top players of the time not bothering to play in it. So we have to go back to the 1960s and 70s, to the likes of Virginia Wade, for a time when we had genuinely world class singles players. For a time of male world class players we’d have to go back to the 1930s. In either of those eras, I’m not sure that coaching systems and player pathways created the top class players. So I’m left wondering if the tennis system in this country has ever produced a world class player. Just to illustrate how woeful and embarrassing the situation is, I’ve compiled a list of countries who have players ranked higher than the highest ranked Britain in both the men’s and women’s game (not counting Murray as he hasn’t come through the British ‘system’). So until we get to Bogdanovic at number 268 and Keothavong at 123, the following countries appear in the rankings on 16th November 2010:

 Spain

Switzerland

Serbia

Sweden

Czech Republic

USA

Russia

Austria

France

Croatia

Cyprus

Latvia

Argentina

Brazil

Germany

Chinese Taipei

Kazakhstan

Finland

Uzbekistan

Holland

Ukraine

Italy

Australia

Belgium

South Africa

Uruguay

Colombia

Chile

Poland

Israel

Slovakia

Portugal

Turkey

Japan

India

Bulgaria

Lithuania

Luxembourg

Paraguay

Hungary

Canada

Belarus

Romania

Ecuador

Morocco

Dominican Republic

Algeria

Denmark

Mexico

China

Estonia

Thailand

 

Whilst compiling the list of 53 nations, I was starting to wonder if there were any countries left in the world.

Every year at Wimbledon, some executive of the LTA faces the cameras and tries to explain away the latest lack of success. All sorts of other people put forward excuses too. Despite the millions generated by Wimbledon every year, on top of any government funding, some people still maintain that we need to spend more money on the system to have more success. Looking at the list again do we really have less to spend on tennis than, Serbia, Czech Republic and Latvia, not to mention Algeria, Dominican Republic and Hungary? The British climate is a classic excuse for poor performance in many sports. Is our climate really worse for tennis than, Estonia, Denmark, Russia, Austria, Sweden.........? Then the facilities get the blame, of the 53 nations on that list I would be confident that we have better tennis facilities than at least 40 of them. The British track cycling team have probably been the most successful British sports team of the last five years or so, all that staggering success has come largely on the back of one facility, the Velodrome in Manchester. With exceptional coaches and sports sciences experts, who rather than copying existing methods and systems, have come up with their own methods to get ahead of the competition, the cyclist have enjoyed unparalleled success.

            Almost every year we are told that we have ‘good juniors’, leading us to believe that the future looks bright. I can see several flaws in this argument, the most obvious being that they’ve been saying that for years, so we should have seen these fantastic juniors develop into top seniors by now. If we are continually producing top juniors, then clearly the system is weak at helping with the transition from promising junior, to established professional. Every sport has countless examples of players who looked like potential world beaters in their teens, but never went on to any sort of success as an adult. Often it’s merely the case that the player developed their full adult strength and physical maturity before their peers, which masked flaws in their technique and their mental toughness. Britain’s two leading juniors at the moment are both ladies, one of which, Heather Watson, has been coached and developed in Florida. Currently 23 of the world’s top 100 in the women’s game are 21years old or younger. Many make their initial break through on the main tour when aged under 18, which makes me wonder just how seriously the very top female players, aged eighteen and under, take the junior game.

            Undoubtedly the game in Britain is still very much the domain of the middle to upper classes. Whilst I believe this to be one of the biggest reasons for the lack of success, the success of English golfers at the moment show that it is not an obstacle that can’t be overcome. No one can argue that Golf is any less upper class than tennis, but currently there are 6 Englishmen in the top 30 of the world rankings, including world number one Lee Westwood. A sign of the strength in depth is that there are 12 Englishmen in the World’s top 100 golfers. On the women’s side there are 3 English women and 1 Scot in the top 100 of their world rankings.

            Despite all of this spectacular failure, ‘top’ tennis coaching in this country remains unaffordable for all but the lucky few. How on earth can coaches and a coaching system that has produced so few, maybe even no, world class players, justify their ridiculous fees that can force parents to remortgage their house. Surely any coach confident in their own ability should be able to work with a talented youngster for a limited fee, but with the proviso that the coach earns a percentage of any professional earnings the player makes in the first three years of their career, or some similar deal.

            The actual sport itself requires so many qualities that are much more associated with the working classes. Being one on one with your opponent, gladiator like, every time they hit the ball you are desperate for it to not get past you and for you to hit it back harder or better or both. You have to find the desire to stay out on court, making sure that somehow you win the last point. Every Wimbledon people on the BBC encourage youngsters to go down to their local park and give tennis a try. I don’t know which Jane Austen novel they are living in, but when I look around for tennis courts all I can see are the ones that belong to a private club and are almost always empty. Most public courts have an awful surface, often missing both a net to hit over and a fence to stop the ball travelling many yards if it is hit off the court. Several fantastic sports ‘cages’ are popping up around the country, where people can go and play small sided football, basketball, cricket and touch rugby amongst other things. Why not make sure each of these facilities has a wall at least at one end, with a line painted on at net height. That way a youngster can come along and whack balls against the wall, whether they are on their own or not. Every single tennis club in the country should also have a practice wall at the end of at least one of their courts. That way a youngster, lucky enough to be a member, could go down to the club on their own at anytime and know they’ll always be able to hit balls against the wall, rather than having to always arrange for somebody else to be there with them to play a game. I firmly believe that these practice walls would in the long term greatly increase the chances of there being a world class British tennis player, even if no other changes were made.

            It goes without saying that there should be more tennis in schools, the LTA should be setting up taster sessions for all schools and then running after school clubs for those who are interested, maybe for a small fee for each player. From those clubs the talent identification can begin and anybody earmarked for success can be put forward further development systems. Again this is where the limited fees and coaches being paid a percentage of future earnings could be put into practice. I’m sure if most families were given the option of sending their child to a tennis camp that’s going to cost them a few thousand pounds, or one that charges a nominal fee but insists on taking ten percent of their child’s earnings from tennis for the first three years of their career, the vast majority would opt for the win-win aspect of the second scenario.

            Clearly I’m not a fan of the British tennis system, but the other aspect to all of this is that you can have the best systems in the world but sooner or later it comes down to individuals to be truly successful. To all those players currently being funded by the LTA, can you honestly look yourself in the mirror and say you’re doing all you can to be the best tennis player you can possibly be? Being committed and having a great attitude is not just about putting in some ‘brave’ performances at Wimbledon, before ultimately losing to a more talented opponent. Commitment is all about every second of every day.  Are you doing all the practice you could? Working on your fitness and footwork as much as you could? Analysing your technique and tactics as much as possible? Studying the top players in the world and learning all you can from them? If you’re doing all that then you have my upmost respect.

            One last point, about the farce of the wild cards at Wimbledon, being from a particular country should not be enough to earn a wild card to an event. Especially when you get £10,750 for losing in the first round. That’s about as much as some hardworking people earn in a year, and more than enough to pay a part time tennis development coach to go around coaching in schools. I think if wild cards are to go to British players then it should go to players twenty one years old or younger, after their tournament is over they should be told that if they want another taste of the big time then they are going to have to earn their place in the main draw next year. British players over twenty one should be told they are more than welcome to enter the qualifiers.

            I look forward to any responses, even if they are in defence of the current system and would love to hear other suggestions for how the system could be improved.

 

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Comments 8 comments

Lupine Rob profile image

Lupine Rob 6 years ago from Warrington, England Author

Clearly I owe an apology to Elana Bstacha, no idea how I missed her on the world ranking list, coming in at number 55. All those countries on the list still have male singles player ranked above Bogdanovic, apart from China, Estonia and Thailand and China and Estonia have a player ranked above Elena.

Don't think that oversight affects the overall nature of the article.


Fuller_legend profile image

Fuller_legend 6 years ago from Stoke-On-Trent, England

Great hub again Rob. It really is inexcusible the lack of talent british tennis currently has. Also in the past the players who were up there with the best (in my time anyway) just didn't have that real winning mentality to push on to the next level. I remember John Mcenroe saying in commentary when Henman lost in the semi final of wimbledon that he just didn't look angry enough that he'd lost. It always stuck with me that did as i think it explains quite a few problems in all aspects of sport in britain. We're just not nasty enough.


Oliver Chettle 5 years ago

The idea that the working classes are harder working and more competitive than the middle classes is a misconception that can only exist as a manifestation of left-wing social attitudes, and has no grounding in reality. Most middle class people are formerly working class people, or the children or grandchildren of such, who became middle class because they are harder working and more competitive than the people who stayed working class. Most top foreign tennis players, including Federer and Nadal, are middle class. They usually come from countries where tennis is more popular than it is here, and the (overwhelmingly middle class) club system has a more positive attitude to junior tennis.

Tennis is expensive because it is a very technical individual sport. Players can only reach the top with the aid of thousands of hours of high quality individual coaching. It is impossible to provide this cheaply. Someone has to fund it. Often parents make great sacrifices (and being middle class does not mean you are cash rich, as so many seem to assume). The big advantage that players in countries where tennis is truly popular enjoy is that there is a much greater supply of private sponsors for promising juniors (all middle or upper class of course). Here people expect the LTA to provide everything, but compared with the total amount invested in tennis (by middle class people) in countries like France and Spain, the LTAs income is tiny. Even in this country, it only accounts for just under 5% of the turnover of the tennis industry (£60 million out of £1.3 billion).

A coach who worked for a percentage of future earnings would be condemning himself to the bankruptcy court. There are thousands of kids being coached on a full time basis, and a player needs to reach the top hundred to make a decent profit from the game. Currently on average players reach the top hundred at twenty four, and stay in the top hundred for three or four years. Thus under your scheme, a coach would have to work for nothing for fifteen years, then take his percentage of what would often be small net profits for three or four. And of course he could only have one or two players, if he was giving them the amount of coaching an elite player needs. Even if he was a very good coach, the chances are that out of the five or six players he could work with for the necessary time in a forty year career, either one or (far more likely) none would make it to the top hundred.

The odds of making it financially in tennis are awful, and they are only going to get worse as the sport continues to globalise, because the structure of the sport means that any growth in its global revenue will mainly go to the same number of top players. It doesn't make any sort of sense to invest financially in tennis, it is only a rational thing to do if you love the sport.

I'm not a fan of the LTA, but they are not to blame for our lack of success. We don't produce top players because tennis isn't a major sport here. No national association produces top players on an assembly line. Each great player is a fortunate combination of talent, dedication, and the right support from key individuals, primarily parents and coaches. Many of them are mavericks. To produce them frequently, you have to have a large talent pool, and that means a talent pool of people who love the sport. Any athletic kid who just wants to make money from his physical abilities should go into a team sport, where far more people earn serious money.


Oliver Chettle 5 years ago

To finish dealing with your suggestions:

Most public courts have been neglected over recent decades because they are only used for two weeks of the year. I grew up in a town that was well endowed with empty public courts. The problem is that tennis is a very minor sport here, so they were not used. If Wimbledon didn't exist, no-one would think anything of this.

Your suggestion that public courts are keenly desired, while private courts sit unused suggests that you haven't visited many tennis facilities of any kind in this country.

Hitting a ball against a wall might have been of some value several generations ago, when standards were very much lower, but it is no value to the production of elite players now. The last self-taught elite player retired many decades ago.

No-one could afford to offer tennis camps on the basis you propose. The net present value of a claim on ten per cent of participants' future earnings would be as close to zero as makes no difference. Those (mostly middle class) Eastern Europeans we are supposed to admire for making it despite having no facilities, often went to tennis academies in Florida that charge about £40,000 a year, cash in advance. Some of these academies do offer a few scholarships, but they can only afford to do so because they fool naive middle class parents into paying for places for offspring that they academies know have no chance of making it. It all comes back to the same thing: one way or another, all elite level young tennis players are subsidised by middle class adults. (This includes Venus and Serena Williams, despite their attempts to rewrite their biographies to suppress all the favours they received from rich white people).

The LTA has an expanding schools programme. This should not be necessary, state schools should promote sporting excellence without any external encouragement.

I have no reason to think that the British players work less hard than foreigners with similar rankings. Almost none of the current top twenty British players are posh, by any reasonable definition of posh. Most of them are from the middle 80% of upper working and lower middle class people. The poshest of the lot is Laura Robson. Do you think she is the least likely to succeed? We have less success because we have a smaller talent pool. This needs to be emphasised over and over again. It doesn't help that a British player ranked 200 is exposed to constant ridicule, while a French or Spanish player at that level is seen as one success amongst many successes.

Every country gives wild cards to its own players in its own tournaments, and the LTA has already tightened the Wimbledon wild card criteria, so that they are now only given to youngsters and players in the top 250.


Oliver Chettle 5 years ago

Two final points on Wimbledon wildcards.

The way people react to the defeats of the British wildcards only shows the utter ignorance that most people in this country have of the year round sport of tennis. The players are nearly always up against much higher ranked players, so of course they usually lose. It is simply ridiculous to be surprised by this.

The number of wildcards is fixed by agreement between the four grand slam organisers. If the money doesn't go to British players (and most of it didn't this year), it goes to subsidise low ranked foreign players instead. They must think we are mugs. It can't be diverted to part time schools coaches, and if it was, that's less than two hundred thousand pounds, an invisibly small amount in relation to the global investment in youth tennis.


Guide on the side 5 years ago

You have to ask the question are the LTA growing the game and the base from which the top players will emerge or not?

Considering there were over 5000 tennis clubs 5 years ago and now there are only 2500, and park courts are being converted into skate board ramps... I'd say not.

It seems they are only interested in performance players and the big super clubs which can only attract the more wealthy players.

The LTA will point to the growing number of players playing in competition but this is just more creative accounting. They even count the American tournaments my Mum plays in now. Tournaments shes played in for over 30 years I might add.

We need more cheap indoor clubs, not super state of the art complexes. Just a 3 to 6 court club with a dome in the winter. The best place to build them is in schools. You will then have a ready made talent pool to pick from...

These new clubs will bring more talented sports players to tennis and it will become the mass participation sport it deserves to be.


Marcus de Kaldam 4 years ago

Iv been in love with tennis since I was 13, I'm 51 now.i started playing in my backlane with a long sick and two dustbins as supports. I was lucky to join a club and play as much as I could in sun, rain, wind and snow. We never had indoor courts, how I wish we did. The LTA is i believe corrupt organisation, paying itself large salarys, building a tennis centre in Roehampton, which losses money. Untill we can get rid of the people running the LTA British tennis will never produce a grand slam champion. We need to look at employing people like John McEnroe or Conners to help run the LTA, build more Indoor tennis courts, and dig up all astro turf courts and relay them either with hard or clay. I live in Lymington a wealthy part of England yet the closest indoor tennis court is miles away. We have tennis clubs still living in the 1920s, mixed doulble, whites only etc, poor courts and expensive coaching. I will leave with a parting note, French kids are coached into believing "Win or Starve." Great line.


Lupine Rob profile image

Lupine Rob 4 years ago from Warrington, England Author

Great comment Marcus, agree with everything you say!

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