All we need is another 10 years ...
Yes, apparently, time is all we require to lift the great British tennis racket out of the mire of ignominious defeat, not to mention losing to Slovakia.
Tuesday 02 May 1995
Then the world moved on, men wore patterned shorts on Centre Court and found it impossible to return service, even with graphite, and Swedes and Germans and people called Yannick began lifting silver like it belonged to them. So we invested some money on new facilities, and Buster Mottram visited a few schools to tell pupils in Arsenal shirts how he almost won something, and the virile message from British tennis was that we'd be back.
Over the weekend our Davis Cup team lost to the Slovak Republic. Call the Lawn Tennis Association and a helpful spokesman called Johnny Perkins explains that we were never really expected to win that one anyway, because those Slovaks are pretty mean these days, and it was on clay, and we had young and inexperienced players, and we were playing away. "In fact," he says, "I think we performed creditably."
Once, this would have been a day of national mourning - Tim and Neil defeated by Jan and Karol. Now we fly home with smiles and say phew, we were creditable, but those blokes are hot! In July, we play Monaco. If we lose that one, our team will be relegated to Group III of the Euro/African zone in which we may lose to players from Moldova and Benin.
In place of victory we have a looped video running at Olympus Sport shops. This is an LTA initiative, one of many designed to produce, in its own words, "if not a champion, then at least someone who can get into the top 50". On the tape, the viewer is invited to hit it, and sees shots of Andre and Boris punching the air in delight. The idea is to show the very coolness of the sport, to suggest that your friends will not laugh at you if you pick up a racket (or ideally buy a racket from Olympus Sport).
There is also the chance to win tickets to Wimbledon. Wimbledon, that strange fortnight that brings out both the best in us (organisation) and the worst (taking part), is less than eight weeks away. The courts will be as full during the tournament as they always are when we will dig out our old Maxply Forts - and then most of us will fail to live up to our own expectations, and lay down our old rackets for another good warping under the stairs.
Perhaps we just have the wrong attitude. Life would be easier if we could view Wimbledon as an international celebration of the game. Britain has about 2 per cent of the world's players (and now 121 countries play tennis, not only the 12 or so that competed when Fred Perry reigned). Last year, two of our players reached the last 16, as many as the Germans. This should be seen as a great result. But why should we do well just because we host the most prestigious tournament in the world and provide soft fruit? It's not as though we have a divine right.
But if we do take patriotism to heart, we should ask why we are still third rate, and why this is so after years of investment and fighting talk.
In 1992, the LTA announced a £63m, five-year plan to correct most of the familiar malaises, all the familiar excuses. There is the class thing: tennis is too often perceived as a middle-class pursuit played lazily by those with high cholesterol. Tennis is not a street sport: there are not enough well-maintained public courts; when new faces join, they are not welcomed; when they seek coaching, the coaches are often poor motivators. And when you want to play, you can't because it's raining.
Anyway, most kids would rather be Norman Bates than Jeremy Bates: Ryan Giggs and Sally Gunnell are role models, winners; why should anyone want to copy someone who always goes out in the third round? And if we do find someone young and talented, parents sell everything to jet them to Florida and take them to every LTA tournament, where inevitably they burn out. One can't help feeling it's not like that in Gothenburg, where a young talent is not treated like a freak.
But things have improved significantly in the past few years. Not the players, perhaps, but at least the infrastructure. "We thought we had it made in the Seventies," Johnny Perkins says. He mentions Virginia Wade, Mark Cox, Roger Taylor, Sue Barker. "We thought things would carry on."
The Indoor Tennis Initiative that began in 1986 has produced 35 public access pay-and-play centres, many in the north, the last of which opened in Glasgow in April. And in 1992 the LTA got even more serious, with a five-year plan that promised to spend £11m on the upgrading of tournament venues, £8m on training facilities, £19m on new indoor courts, and £25m on more public outdoor courts. There would be many slow clay courts, to help cure a particular weakness in our game. Proven coaches would be imported from abroad. A new environment would be created in schools. Last year, the LTA announced that another £28m would be invested from the proceeds of Wimbledon (in 1981, the proceeds were only about £400,000).
And now there is even a new saviour in the shape of David Lloyd, the man behind the hugely successful and rather expensive private tennis and leisure clubs. Until recently, Lloyd was one of the LTA's biggest critics, unhappy at the management structure which meant it took months for any committee to make a decision. This was simplified at the start of the year, and Lloyd felt encouraged enough to become our Davis Cup captain, with his brother John its coach.
Like the LTA, the Lloyds are optimistic; to hear them tell it, these new developments are the best news since AT Myers first served overarm. Someone even mentioned lottery money...
So why do we still do badly? It's time, you see. We just have to be patient. The Germans began their grand tennis schemes 20 years ago, the Swedes likewise. "Our eyes are open; the issues have been addressed," says Mark Cox, the former player and BBC commentator. Cox says that our 14-and-under boys team and 16-and-under girls recently reached the finals of important European and American competitions. So in 10 years we'll be better? Absolutely. In 10 years, we'll be beating the best Slovaks in the world.
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