It’s been a shameful few weeks for British tennis.
Since the Davis Cup defeat by Lithuania, barely a day has passed without one media outlet or another revealing a new twist in the story.
First, it was the ritual analysis of the work of the Lawn Tennis Association (LTA).
Before long, John Lloyd resigned from the worst job in tennis, and began to cast his vitriol in assorted directions.
Eventually, attention turned to Roger Draper, the chief executive of the LTA since 2006, who has commissioned an internal review following the Lithuania tie.
Draper himself also had some explaining to do to a group of MPs and peers chaired by Baroness Billingham. He was been summoned to explain how the LTA spends the £27 million of public funding it receives from Sport England for grass-roots projects.
But never far away from the war of words that breaks out after each Davis Cup tie is the name of Andy Murray.
One moment he is pilloried for deserting the Davis Cup team in its hour of need, and the next he is being consulted on what needs to happen to turn things around.
Well it’s time to call a halt and face a few home truths. The mire in which British tennis finds itself is not of Murray’s making. Indeed it might be argued that, without his presence, this furore would all have come to a head far sooner.
First, the GB team’s loss to Lithuania marked its fifth defeat in a row—and to a country with just three ATP-ranked players at 195, 518, and 851. There are about 50 ranked GB players, yet still they could not find a winning combination.
GB has not won a tie since 2007. Last year it fell to Group Two of the Europe Africa Zone, and it is now close to another ignominious drop, this time to the lowest group in the tournament.
Then it became clear—once Lloyd had fallen on his sword—that there was little consensus on who should take over the manager’s mantle. Tim Henman was not interested; Greg Rusedski was interested, but not wanted. Murray has suggested that he and fellow players might be consulted, but there’s no sign of that happening thus far.
Draper has, though, suggested that an unknown might be a good choice, somebody “who is embedded in British tennis. It’s a great opportunity for some young British coaches to come through.” Judging from the comments of others in the world of British tennis, it sounds more of a poison chalice than a great opportunity.
Take John Lloyd’s brother, David, himself a former manager of the Davis Cup team.
“Where are the male players that the LTA has actually produced? Zero. That’s the bottom line,” said Lloyd. “How do you keep your job if you are failing? I think Roger [Draper] should walk. I don't see it getting better.”
Then there’s been the John Lloyd tantrum. Until his resignation last week, he seemed to be supportive of Murray’s decision not to play in the last tie. Now he’s fanned the flames by criticising Murray’s apparent lack of commitment to his country.
“Call me old-fashioned, but when is it a convenience, and not a privilege, to play for your country?...Yet the public seem to have accepted Andy should be playing only when the team are in the upper echelons of the competition.”
Who can blame Murray for retorting: “I would rather he was a little more supportive.”
The brutal truth is that Britain has not won the Davis Cup since 1936, and has no prospect of doing so. Fred Perry must be spinning in his grave at the contrast between the 21st century GB team and the four-time winning British team he led.
Even with Murray on board, there is currently no other world-class player on the horizon, nor the expectation that the system will cultivate a crop from which a shoot of hope may burst.
More brutal truth has come from a passionate interview by the BBC of Mark Petchey, former coach to Murray and now a lead commentator on the BBC and Sky.
Not only does he feel John Lloyd has become a scapegoat for the GB team’s failure, but he is shocked that the internal review of the debacle is to be undertaken by the very individuals running the performance programme.
“Roger Draper needs to go. He’s paid lip service to grass roots tennis and there hasn’t been the investment in the infrastructure.”
Despite Draper’s claim that 60% of the LTA’s money was directed at grass-roots projects such as schools tennis and new facilities, Petchey points out that there are just 1,500 indoor courts in the country, while Indoor Tennis Initiative centres are closing.
“All the money has been focused at the top end. We’ve seen a drop of almost 100 places in the average ATP ranking of British men since 2006.”
Even Tim Henman, not renowned for his outspokenness, told BBC Radio 5 Live that “We need to change the base of our pyramid to make that a lot better.”
And one more truth, equally unpalatable, returns to Andy Murray. He may be an inspiration to all those youngsters eager to join an LTA scheme or to play at the local park, but he succeeded despite the LTA. He is the product of independent development, managed by an astute and experienced tennis-playing mother. And from age 15, he trained in Spain.
And so to Murray: should he commit to the Davis Cup or not?
Well first, let’s get a few things straight. Murray has, quite rightly, pointed out that he is not the only top player to miss out on Davis Cup commitments. Yet like Federer, for example, he gets little credit for just how regularly he has stepped up to the plate. Both have until now played for their nations every year since turning professional: that is, since they were 17. For Murray, that means every year since 2005: 17 rubbers played, 11 of them won.
Compare that with players of a similar age and with similar aspirations. Nadal, a year older, has won 16 out of 21 rubbers. Robin Soderling and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who have almost three years over Murray, have, respectively, 11 wins out of 15, and seven out of eight.
Now consider Murray’s long-term career. He won both his singles matches when GB lost to Poland last September, and as a result he aggravated an old wrist injury that had forced him out of tennis for three months in 2007. He hinted that the criticism he received for missing previous Davis Cup matches was one of the reasons he decided to risk the injury against Poland.
“I thought about [missing the tie] but last time something like that happened I spent the next three months answering questions like ‘Does Davis Cup mean anything to you? Do you feel like you let your country down?’”
The first tie of the year is very difficult for the top players, slotted as it is immediately before the first two Masters events of the year. Murray also had big points to defend at both Indian Wells and Miami, and needed to be in the best possible shape.
Little wonder, then, that he took the decision—along with Federer, Juan Carlos Ferrero and Andy Roddick—to opt out of the March tie. As Murray so rightly pointed out “It would be a bit unfair to single me out. A lot of players better than me have missed Davis Cup matches.”
John Lloyd said, on the back of his resignation from the manager’s role: “The reality is that the only way for Britain to get back to the World Group of the Davis Cup is with [Murray] in the team.”
Sadly, that is true. But it is not Murray’s fault that British tennis is in such a dire condition. Remember, too, that he is now constantly questioned about when—and if—he will be the first British man since Fred Perry to win a Grand Slam. At least that achievement is in his own control. Davis Cup victory is well beyond his control.
So, it is time to be ruthless with the systems that have put Murray in this impossible position.
There has to be a review of the support that the LTA gives its top players. Perhaps the panel of the Parliamentary Group for Tennis will push the right buttons when they’ve heard just how all those LTA millions have been allocated.
With luck, they may also be enthused by the Tennis For Free campaign, set up to provide free coaching on free courts for youngsters around the country. The many celebrities who support the scheme have the chance to present it at the House of Commons.
Most of the world’s top 10 male players say they played football as youngsters, but opted instead 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.
So, rather than close down indoor courts, the LTA should build centres of excellence designed to bring talented athletes into tennis as an exciting alternative to the other lucrative sports on offer.
Put the centres where ordinary kids and their parents can reach them. Pay for the best coaches for those centres. Get into schools and clubs, show kids the potential of the sport, point to the big names out there and what they earn.
Support the kids with potential and enthusiasm in early development programmes, and get them used to competing and to winning.
And in reviewing how those millions of pounds are being spent, maybe the spotlight could be turned on the LTA itself—its processes, its communications, its 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 to be part of the show.
Meanwhile, Andy, aim for the top as you always have. It might be a lonely road, but just wait till you’re holding that first Slam trophy.
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