When Will British Tennis Learn That Winning Matches Is Not Just About Money?

Marianne BevisSenior Writer IMarch 8, 2009

There have been storms and there have been shock results. Czech Republic beating France, anyone?

There have been revealing head-to-heads between the best in the world. Yes, Nadal is still tops.

There were heart-warming stories of comebacks from cancer as a depleted Argentina whitewashed the Netherlands.

The U.S. was thrilled by their hero’s return to form. Take a bow, Andy.

Then perennial favorite Safin accompanied Russia to their 10th quarterfinal appearance.

Even politics scored headlines, as Israel won the decisive rubber behind closed doors in Sweden.

And amidst all these thrills and spills, national pride and top-ranking matches, British fans again had to hide their heads in embarrassment.

So thin is talent in the British men’s game that team captain John Lloyd resorted to a highly unusual selection process.

He held playoffs to determine who would represent their country against the Ukraine, Lloyd and on to make the shocking statement that some of the men involved had never played a five-set tournament on the tour before.

The UK's governing body, the Lawn Tennis Association (LTA), were keen to play up the devastating effect of Andy Murray's absence due to illness. But then both Argentina and Russia were also missing their top men, and both squads managed to win their world group ties.

It fell to Josh Goodall, ranked No. 192, and Chris Eaton, ranked No. 383, to deliver the ignominy of Great Britain entering a second-round playoff against Poland in September. They played their hearts out in front of a decent crowd in Glasgow, but their best was simply not good enough for world tennis.

As if this admission is not shameful enough, the LTA has simultaneously announced a package of changes in the support it gives its "top" players.

The LTA’s player director was keen to stress that the Association is “not a social security system”, and then outlined a contract system that will give around 36 players up to £50,000 of funding in exchange for meeting individual targets such as ranking, physical fitness, and first-serve percentage.

Additional funding will be awarded for Davis Cup appearances, a Wimbledon wild card, and still more for wild cards in other grass court tournaments. Prize money and sponsorship would be bonuses.

However, if targets are not met, their funding may be cut or withdrawn.

Is this a responsible and logical way of distributing the extensive resources that the LTA has at its disposal? Resources that, incidentally, include a substantial chunk of money from the Wimbledon Championships every year.

Is the problem not one of an adequate supply of players from the grass roots?

A reasonable alternative might be the creation and support of far more centers of excellence designed to bring talented athletes into tennis as an exciting alternative to the other lucrative sports on offer.

Many of the current top men in tennis say they played football as youngsters, but opted for tennis. In the UK, sadly, tennis is still seen as an elitist sport that the most physically gifted children cannot afford, while football is ubiquitous.

By the time the LTA system kicks in, it is too late for many. They have been creamed off by the youth talent schemes for football or athletics.

It is telling that the first British woman to break into the top-50 in 16 years, Anne Keothavong, used the occasion to criticize unprofessional elements in the LTA. A late bloomer at 25-years-old, Keothavong claimed she nearly gave up years ago because of poor support.

It is well known that Murray was brought on by his mother, a tennis coach who had the ability to develop the skills of both her tennis playing sons.

Would Murray be No. 4 had he been entirely dependent on the Association's funding?

This is not to say that there should be no support for the developing players. Financial help in getting to tournaments around the world, basic subsistence, and medical backup is vital if young players are to break into the upper rankings.

But by the time they reach the world tour, there should be enough personal drive to compete, improve, and win without the sort of additional incentives that the LTA is now proposing.

Put the money into tennis centers that can be reached by ordinary kids and their parents.

Pay for the best coaches for those centers.

Get into schools and clubs. Show kids the potential of the sport. Show them the stars out there and what they earn.

Support the ones with potential and enthusiasm in early development programes, and get them used to competing and to winning.

In reviewing how these millions of pounds are being spent, maybe the spotlight could turn inwards on what exactly is spent on the LTA itself; its processes, its communications, and the bonus schemes. Just so everyone is clear about the Association’s priorities.

Tennis is blossoming all over the world, and most strikingly in countries that have smaller populations, lower GDPs, and no tradition in the game.

There is no excuse for Great Britain not being part of the show.