With Edgbaston’s DFS Classic and the Wimbledon tennis tournaments just around the corner, Helen Turner looks at what lies ahead for the British game.
Like rugby and cricket, tennis is a British institution, towards which we have unique and proud association. It goes with Pimms, lush green grass, Robinson’s squash and strawberries.
However it appears that the British game needs a bit of a transformation, as success fades more and more into the distant past.
As typical Brits, we had high expectations for Tim Henman, but he has experienced more success at selling squash than swinging aces on centre court.
The fact we don’t encourage our junior players enough is hardly a new argument - any Google search will reveal it has been a point of contention for much of the past decade.
The LTA actively sought to change this perception in their Autumn 2006 Blueprint - a plan of action to kick British tennis into shape. Under the promising slogan, ‘British tennis is winning’.
But with recent headlines such as “World’s worst tennis pro finally wins a match”, we might well wonder what hope there is for British tennis. The story gleefully recounted the “unblemished record of utter failure” that accounted for the career of Robert Dee. He finally won a match which helped him qualify for a minor Spanish tournament, following 54 consecutive match losses.
Dee’s determination and total prize money of £1,154 amused many, except his father, who declared the win “a tribute to his perseverance”.
Having admitted in the LTA’s 10-page document, “We have a track record of producing high performance juniors who then fail to make the transition into winners in the senior game”, numerous solutions to the problem were given.
These included: to “refresh and simplify the competitive structure”, to “energise, refocus and improve the junior and senior national club leagues and to “improve access to players of all ages and abilities and deliver support to attract and retain more people to play tennis”.
Overall, they concluded, “we want to modernise, with a radical shift in the way we support our players, parents and coaches.”
Given the highest world ranking for a British women is 118 and for the men, 241, following Andy Murray at 20, it seems this envisioned ‘climate of success and culture’ is still a long shot away.
Evidently, such change may just take more time, especially if it is to influence juniors from the start. However, The Post asked two LTA-accredited coaches what they considered to be current problems and obstacles for British tennis.
Coach Mark Tennant, who is based at Warwick University’s new £2.5 million indoor tennis centre, believes competition is key to attracting juniors to the game. Using the example of children playing tennis in a park, like football, he said: “They would pick teams and play matches.”
They would not, he said, start coaching one another, which tends to be the way most frequent and needlessly expensive way children play tennis.”
Football, games consoles and demanding education targets already prevent talented children from developing or getting noticed, he explained.
“If you look at what young children have to contend with, they are actually very busy these days.”
However junior coach and player Jade Tomlin, from London, believes Britain’s failure is in allowing these activities to take priority.
The 21-year-old said: “Other countries like America and Russia don’t hinder their players because they don’t leave room for error. They pick kids as young as six and do not let them go. School becomes a secondary thing and they don’t look back.”
Andy Roddick, ranked sixth in the world, is a prime example of an excellent player who could easily have slipped through the net, had he followed his doubts. He said in a BBC report: “In late 1999 when I was 17, I wasn’t doing all that well in the juniors and I was ready to go to college.
“My coach at the time, Tarik Benhabiles, said to me: “Give me four months, leave it until Spring before you go to school.”
The decision to wait obviously paid off.
Academy Pro coach Alex Henderson, of Battersea Park Tennis, believes competition and combined study is handled better abroad.
He said: “In America you can get a college scholarship and play tennis to a pretty high standard. James Blake and John McEnroe both went through college at the same time, and were able to play a high level of tennis while getting a decent education.”
In comparison, UK universities don’t tend to value tennis as highly as sports such as rugby and rowing, and the facilities are often accessible to an exclusive minority.
The competitive element for juniors is also handled better abroad.
“In France they have something like 80,000 matches being played compared to around 9,000 in England, for roughly the same number of kids playing,” said Henderson
Snobbery, it seems, is still an issue. Many in the game believe that juniors are still unwelcome at clubs as it is the adults who pay high membership fees.
“The clubs don’t want them, as it is the adults want to play on weekends,” said Henderson. “Recently one of the girls I teach had her first tournament. Her mum drove her up there in all her new whites. But nobody was there, they’d cancelled through lack of juniors and nobody had bothered to phone her mother.”
He complained about the incident to the LTA and offering to organise competitions at his own centre. But was baffled when the sport’s body never replied to his e-mail.
Henderson recalled approaching top coach Nick Bollettieri, whose former clients include Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi, saying: “He had five players playing in Wimbledon that day. I approached him and introduced myself and said I was a big fan of his coaching, and he said, ‘Come on buddy,’ and we sat down for half an hour and chatted.
"That would never happen if he was English. It would be more like, ‘Oh go away, you horrible little man’. It’s not the LTA that’s like that, the whole of English tennis is a bit like that.”
The LTA are working hard to open tennis up to more diverse backgrounds, but it is not something that can take place over night.
It is no surprise that our two best British players, Tim Henman and Andy Murray, come from privileged tennis backgrounds.
“But not everyone comes from a tennis family,” Henderson said, using the example of Spain, where juniors often play with or nearby the top players.
“When Nadal was a young boy, he used to play with (Carlos) Moya”, he said. “That doesn’t seem to happen here. Not that we have many professionals to play with. That is part of the problem.”
Henderson said one of the LTA’s new initiatives to encourage English juniors to play mini tennis, has a lot of potential. “You have to make it fun for the young ones,” he said.
“It is a difficult game and they try to do quite complicated skills, compared to kicking a football, which for a four-year-old is not particularly difficult.”
Mini Tennis uses bigger, softer balls, lower nets, smaller rackets and generally makes tennis a bit more playable for youngsters and has been a new LTA initiative to get juniors under the age of 10 playing matches.
Head of Technology at LTA Steven Martens, said: “There are a lot more young kids competing now in mini tennis. We have an aim of a minimum of 15,000 juniors competing by the end of September.”
He said more coaches are now adopting the junior-designed tournament scheme, which has taken a while to gain popularity because it involves “a shift of mentality”.
Mr Martin said the sport could be opened up to youngsters more by taking deuce and advantage out of the match structure, this would ensure that tournaments do not become frustrating long-drawn out affairs.
Although countries which produce top tennis players, such as Russia, Serbia or Argentina, do not have such schemes at home, mini tennis is being widely encouraged in the UK.
While such initiatives clearly cannot happen overnight LTA statistics already show improvements.
Some 12,350 children play matches regularly, nearly a third higher than the figure 18 months ago. Indoor centres like Warwick are become more common. Open since March 25 this year, courts there can be booked by any member of the public for, as Mark put it, “the cost of a pint”.
The centre provides coaching for an age range of 4-80, as well as targeted sessions and competitions throughout the week. It also includes four acrylic courts like those in the US Open, as well as four floodlit outdoor hard courts. Given the recent headlines regarding Murray’s success on clay, many believe it is a positive step towards broadening our horizons.
There are still many barriers to modernising and improving British tennis and it seems that the big problem of how to get juniors staying in the game at a high level still remains unanswered or avoided.
Henderson said: “You still have this problem of keeping kids into the game in their teens, as most of them have tons of homework. They find it really difficult to combine the hours of tennis and school time.”
He said the numbers of juniors in lessons start to drop off around the age of 12, because they feel overworked. This might be one of the more glaring reasons why countries like France have around eight times the number of juniors competing in matches.
“If your kid comes up to you now and says, “I want to be a tennis player”, you’d probably say “forget it”, because the odds are so small and the sacrifices so high. I’d be really worried if my kid wanted to do tennis seriously and couldn’t get a proper education.
“If it takes about 10,000 hours to produce a top class player, which is about 10 hours a week from the age of about eight to 18, that is a heck of a lot of time needing to be invested, particularly in this country where tennis and education can’t be combined as well.
“I don’t know that anyone is addressing this aspect.”