Paul Hutchins: Out of the comfort zone, where the living isn't so easy

New supremo of British men's tennis is calling for an attitude change. The players need to raise their desire level, he tells Ronald Atkin
Click to follow
The Independent Online

At this time of year the most popular headgear at office parties tends to be the one bearing the message "I'm the boss". The thought of donning such a hat prompts a small smile from Paul Hutchins, the new head of British men's tennis. While the wording is not inappropriate, the Hutchins message is that the party's over for those who dwell in the Lawn Tennis Association's comfort zone, provided by the largesse of Wimbledon profits.

Such surprise pronouncements are part of the self-styled "revolution" sweeping the British scene since the arrival as LTA chief executive of Roger Draper, but in Hutchins' case perhaps the biggest surprise, even to himself, was his appointment last week as men's supremo.

Hutchins, a 61-year-old former Davis Cup captain possessing that blessed asset of never looking a day over 40, had not bothered to apply to join the Draper Revolution, saying he was quite happy as managing director of his own marketing and development company, Tennis Concepts. The name being touted for the post in the public prints was that of Paul Annacone, Tim Henman's American coach, but the job has gone to a Brit with vast experience at all levels of tennis in this country.

Hutchins calls it "a gutsy effort" by Draper to select him when the expectation may have been of a grander name. "I did realise my appointment carried a certain amount of risk from Roger's point of view," he said, fresh from a two-hour meeting with the Davis Cup captain, John Lloyd, at Queen's Club. "My critics, or the people I call the critical whingers, say, 'Why Paul?' There are others who say we need someone of my experience and delivery skills to carry through what Roger has done. Either way, it doesn't bother me, it's up to me to get on with it.

"I can see some people asking why we don't have someone like Boris Becker, John McEnroe or Jimmy Connors as head of men's tennis, but we already have those types in Annacone and Peter Lundgren, key people in the coaching team. Roger said he wanted me to be the knowledge base of British tennis, and that was too exciting to turn down. You do need some people in the revolution, like myself and the Lloyds, John and David, with knowledge of the British game, knowledge about what things have been tried.

"Once we are in the new National Training Centre at Roehampton in February and together as a team, things will no longer be done on a makeshift basis. In the past we have dipped in and out of sports science, sports psychology, fitness, the medical side. Now the idea is to co-ordinate things properly, amalgamate all the expertise."

Acknowledging that the public perception of success would be to produce a string of Andy Murrays, Hutchins stressed: "Andy is a one-off. I don't think we are going to get any more like him in the immediate future. He has been on our radar since he was 10 as a person with exceptional intuition and powers of knowing when to play the right shot at the right time. I don't think we are going to get anybody like him in the next three or four years, rather like we haven't had anybody with the gracefulness, shot technique and style of Tim Henman for 10 years.

"The general public expect the LTA to produce the players. For me, 90 per cent of it should be down to the players and 10 per cent to the LTA. Many British players have not maximised their ability; they regard the LTA as the governing body that owe them a living. It is sometimes a disadvantage that the LTA are funded very well. The LTA must not provide a comfort zone for players, coaches and parents, which has been the case.

"I want to take people out of that comfort zone. Giving the 90-10 example is a quick way of making it clear that the onus is on the players, their desire level and their attitude. They have to stop playing so many domestic tournaments. We don't want dom- estic standards, we have to aim international at all age levels from 12 upwards. I want players to go out on to the dirt courts of India and Europe. It must be a tougher regime from an early age.

"It is not up to the LTA whether the players do well at Wimbledon or not, or whether they are ranked in the top 100. I want it known we will help those who help themselves. It is now up to me to use my new team to point out that many people have been joking around with the LTA for too long."

Hutchins, born in Bristol and educated in the sporting atmosphere of Millfield, spent eight years on the professional circuit and played Davis Cup for his country. But it was as Davis Cup captain for a British record of 31 matches and 13 years that he made his name for man-management skills and the diplomacy needed to handle talented loose cannons such as Buster Mottram and Andrew Castle. So well did he perform that Britain reached the Davis Cup final in 1978, losing to a McEnroe-inspired USA. We have not gone remotely close to the final since.

Nineteen years ago Hutchins set up his own management, marketing and sponsorship company, working closely with the LTA and the All England Club in setting up the Performance Club Programme which assesses and funds the best clubs and academies around the country, as well as establishing a national club league and the successful junior scheme, Road To Wimbledon, which has 900 clubs and 15,000 children participating. He will be handing over all these schemes, apart from retaining his interest in Road to Wimbledon, to the new head of technical support, Steve Martens of Belgium.

"So, since leaving the LTA in 1987 I have been delivering for British tennis and I was very happy where I was. Several people, even the LTA's head-hunters, asked me why I hadn't applied for the new post. It wasn't until five or six weeks ago, when Roger Draper was asking my advice on how to set things up, that he realised he needed someone in there from British tennis."

Hutchins says he has no idea whether the job was first offered to, and turned down by, Annacone. "It doesn't matter to me one iota. There was a lot of press speculation, and one paper even said he had been appointed. People like to speculate, but I don't think anyone speculated on my name. It is no big deal to me. We have got what we have got, Lundgren and Annacone as expert coaches. I want to make sure we use that expertise."

One obvious route will be to improve the dire level of coaching in Britain. "I am concerned when British players go into a coaching role without any guidance, without anybody overseeing them. Over the last 20 years, probably more, the LTA have plucked people out of the circuit and put them into situations without enough coach- education support. We have too many coaches who have not been helped, and it's our fault. I intend to change that."

The changes, he acknowledges, will not be accomplished without upset. "I am going to be having difficult conversations. There is going to be some anger and some pleasure on the part of those I talk to. But when the product has been stale and needs a new impetus, then you bring in a new chief executive, which the LTA have done. You are going to get floods of tears as well as floods of joy. In six months we will have all the chess pieces in place, then it is up to us to get cracking on making things work."

What will not be part of the Hutchins planning is what he calls "stardust days", when names like Connors, McEnroe and the Williams sisters do photo-opportunity sessions. "I hate those occasions with a passion," he said. "They create publicity for the day, but I want youngsters not to be disappointed that they will only see such stars for one hour in one day in their life." Succession planning, something the RFU have not managed too well recently, is already in Hutchins' sights. "I have had some conversations with Tim [Henman] and Greg [Rusedski]. Tim, for example, could walk into anything, probably even go on to the golf circuit for a couple of years. Both could have major roles to play and there is no need to worry about my ego position. I am very happy working with big names.

"Let's succession-plan now, but don't think about sending the likes of Tim and Greg to junior events and Futures and Challengers. Tim could well become head of tennis, but in a restructured role. I am not sure he would ever want to work 52 weeks a year, 12 hours a day with all the different age groups. But get him involved in the key aspects of British tennis, passing on his international experience and motivating youngsters."

As for his own durability, Paul Hutchins vividly recalls one angry Daily Mirror headline following a Davis Cup setback under his captaincy: "Hutchins Must Go Now". He survived that one, and could reasonably be said to be flourishing these days. Where's that "I'm the Boss" hat?

Life & Times: Steering on road to Wimbledon

NAME: Paul Hutchins.

BORN: 5 April 1945, Bristol.

PLAYING CAREER: 1962-70, including Davis Cup.

MANAGERIAL CAREER: Great Britain team manager, '75-87; Davis Cup captain for record 31 matches, including '78 final v US, Britain's first in 63 years (lost 4-1); LTA head of men's tennis, 2006.

OTHER ACTIVITIES: Television commentator, '87-00; director of Riverside indoor tennis clubs, '87-97; owner and managing director of Tennis Concepts consultancy, and tournament director for junior, club and corporate development schemes, including the Road to Wimbledon, '87-06.

FAMILY TIES: Son Ross Hutchins, 22, is a tennis professional.

Comments