British Tennis With the Same Old Story: Right Direction but Give Us Time

by The Insider on December 17, 2010 · 0 comments

in ATP News, Featured, WTA News

This morning I read a very interesting article over on the BBC website about the state of British tennis. I thought I would embed the whole article here for everyone to read. It would be great to hear your thoughts on the matter, and is this only happening in British tennis or are their other countries also not performing?

Another year, another £60m outlay. More promises, more plans.

And the usual answers to the standard questions: “We’re heading in the right direction… give us time…”

Groundhog day at the National Tennis Centre, the unfailingly spotless home of the Lawn Tennis Association, where the annual accounts of the governing body were revealed on Wednesday accompanied by the annual plea for patience.

£59m was earned during 2010, up almost £3m on last year, with the majority coming, as usual, from the generous folk up the road at Wimbledon.

At 17, Bolton’s George Morgan is among the crop of current British hopefuls

Expenditure included £10m on business support, £3m on commercial, £16m on competitions and events, £13m on growth and development and another £13m on talent. £60m in total, a loss of just under £1m.The LTA, defending the expenditure, says definite progress is being made.

The number of adults playing weekly is up above 500,000 for the first time, the number of juniors regularly competing is above 41,000 and the number of juniors “on track” for a professional career is also up (31 in 2010 compared with 26 last year).

There are new sponsorship deals, more indoor courts, and the long-awaited surge of tennis equipment and educational tools into primary schools.

A healthy crop of junior talent – “more depth than before” according to chief executive Roger Draper – backs up a successful year for several British women, especially the inspiring Elena Baltacha, 55 in the world, and the promising Heather Watson whose transition from the junior ranks appears to be going impressively to plan (175 in the world already).

But the ranking figures on the men’s side continue to let the side down. If progress is being made in so many areas (and it clearly is) how can this simple rankings fact be explained: In 2006, there were nine British men inside the top 300 and three inside the top 100. In 2010 there are only three inside 300 and just Andy Murray inside 100?

Over four years, since the arrival of the current regime at the top of the LTA, men’s tennis – including the Davis Cup team – has unquestionably gone backwards.

April’s Davis Cup defeat in Lithuania was an all-time low – the lack of talent beneath Andy Murray cruelly exposed – and led to the “departure” of captain John Lloyd. It also signalled the end for coach Paul Annacone, who finally left the organisation in September to coach Roger Federer. The era of celebrity coaches at the NTC had come to an end.

Like Brad Gilbert and Peter Lundgren before them, Lloyd and Annacone were on extremely healthy contracts. A vast amount of money has left British tennis in the past three years to resolve these deals. Money well spent? Yes, says Draper, brushing aside the rankings history.

But how many indoor courts could have been built with just a fraction of the cash dished to the celebrity quartet?

Unsurprisingly, this matter wasn’t discussed during the speeches at the AGM. Contract pay-offs must appear somewhere within the balance sheet, we just don’t know where. Perhaps under “developing and supporting talent”.

As the speeches continued, and they tend to drone on at these kind of functions, I decided to escape to the indoor courts. On the way, a pit stop at the canteen for a famous LTA coffee and a hello to a few familiar faces.

James Ward, the British number two, had just come off court with his coach, and fellow Arsenal fanatic, Greg Rusedski.

Ward, 201 in the world, will probably be the number one player in the Davis Cup team when Tunisia visit in March so this is a big season ahead for the Londoner.

He’s got a wild card into the Sydney International at the start of the year – a great chance to win a couple of matches at ATP level and take that ranking upwards!

Good to see Jamie Baker too. More injury trouble in 2010 for the unluckiest man in British tennis but he keeps at it, keeps believing. He’s back at futures level for the time being so good luck to him as he grinds his way back.

And so to the courts where, I must confess, I watched some tennis to back up the optimism of the men in suits.

Seventeen-year-old George Morgan from Bolton, fresh from winning the prestigious Orange Bowl in Florida last week, was playing Nottingham 15-year-old Luke Bambridge. I’m told they’re among the hardest workers in the British junior ranks. The coaches love their attitude.

What impressed me most about their session, supervised by coaches Colin Beecher and Magnus Tideman, was the general positivity of the play. Always aggressive, always with an eye for stepping in, moving through the ball and up the court.

This was refreshing to see. Most of the junior tennis I’ve seen at the NTC over the years has been “up and down” – solid baseline stuff, nothing spectacular, a distinct shortage of collective “weapons”.

Morgan has a monster backhand and Bambridge does damage with his forehand; a couple of useful serves too; good feel for an approach shot.

As Davis Cup captain Leon Smith looked on, I couldn’t help wondering whether this was a sign of a new attacking ethos. Smith pointed out that for all the talk of slower courts and lack of net play in the modern game, rallies still only last an average of 4-6 shots. It’s all about taking opportunities and pouncing on chances when they appear. Good to hear.

Smith now heads up the coaching team on the men’s side and, along with Beecher and other committed LTA staffers, has seen the celebrity coaching era come and go. Now is the time to invest in British coaches, the bedrock of the sport in this country.

As Tony Nadal said on 5 Live the other night, there is no miracle cure or proven scientific solution to coaching tennis players. Whatever people may say, Smith and Beecher have as good a shot as Gilbert and Annacone of producing champions. And they’re a damn sight cheaper.

Tideman, the Swede, will be coaching Morgan this season as he takes the first few steps out of the junior ranks and into the big wide world of the senior game. A big job.

This crucial transition period can make or break a player but the LTA are keener than ever not to rush these kids. Patience will be the key. At least with Kyle Edmund, Liam Broady and Oliver Golding, Morgan spearheads an impressive crop of British juniors. Good luck to them all next season.

On the adjacent courts, a few 10-year-olds from the Aegon Future Stars programme were merrily hitting away.

I love the innocence of these kids. The racquets always look way too big, the angle of the serve makes it look trigonometrically impossible to clear to the net.

Good luck to them (keep at it!), although this radio commentator politely invites a colleague to take over before little Boris makes his Wimbledon debut!

They may not make it, they may not even be playing in a couple of years, but it’s always invigorating to watch young kids playing sport. And, make no mistake, there were some classy touches from Cameron Kerr (Renfrewshire), Kai Maxted (Sussex) and Boris Ivanyuzhenkov (London).

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