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Shambolic state of British Tennis
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:
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.