Do I not like that . . .: My fears for the future

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The Independent Online
Shirley Brasher, recently dropped as a coach by the LTA, suggests British tennis will always have problems under them

THE advantage of being dropped by the Lawn Tennis Association for being an unsuitable coach is that it means one must be teaching rather well and in danger of helping pupils to succeed. After all, it would not do to upset the LTA's remarkable record of failure in the game at international level.

What other conclusion can be drawn when I was informed that my minimal LTA coaching grants and free coaching courts for the top girls were being withdrawn only days after Lizzie Jelfs, one of my two principal pupils, had become the first British winner of the girls' doubles at Wimbledon - with Nannie de Villiers from South Africa. Last week Lizzie further blotted my copybook by becoming my sixth pupil in eight years to win a National Junior 18 and under title. Karen Cross, my other pupil, has risen from a British junior ranking of No 5 to a senior ranking of No 4 in the space of 18 months.

While this kind of performance is hardly going to cause Martina Hingis, the 13-year-old wonderchild of international tennis, or Nick Bollettieri, one of the world's best coaches, to miss a heartbeat, by British standards it is a success - unless it has been achieved by someone who is not an official LTA coach.

Qualifications for membership of the elite LTA brotherhood are not clear but they appear to include possessing an impressive range of fashionable kit, a permanent tan and sufficient muscles to carry full hoppers of balls. With my waning female strength, a preference for part-time coaching and a skin that goes red in the sun it is a wonder that my fall from grace has not come sooner.

The charges against me are that my coaching has failed to keep abreast of the modern game, and that only by moving to an official LTA squad will my players fulfil their potential.

The verdict has been passed by Richard Lewis, director of National Training and Janet Newberry, the former US player recently appointed manager of Women's National Training, without their talking to me. Why it has come as a shock is a mystery. My relationship with the LTA as a coach has rarely been harmonious. The problem may be that many of the players with whom I have worked individually have been overlooked or dropped from LTA squads and financial support. One of the most fascinating challenges in sport is to spot unrecognised talent and try to give it the chance to succeed.

Three years ago Lizzie Jelfs was not even selected for the LTA reserve squad in her age group. I had noticed her enthusiasm for the game when practising in the rain and wind during a tournament at Queen's Club. At a similar time, Karen Cross had been turned down for the LTA residential school at Bisham. Karen's mentor, Penny Pullen, a primary school teacher in Exeter and former county player, recognised Karen's talent as a 10-year-old and encouraged and funded her tennis. Funds had become low and her coach had moved abroad so I gave Karen the chance she desperately needed.

Successful coaching at junior international level has to be concerned with analysis of a player's talent, physique and temperament and the player's overall game then developed on lines that fit all three factors. Unfortunately, it is common to find a temperament and a talent geared to ground strokes but a physique that should be rushing to the net, or vice versa. I never feel that enough attention is paid to this in Britain and it is one of the dangers of squad development.

Having worked within the British system in different capacities for so long it is not difficult for me to see why we fail, but it should not take so long for the LTA to improve the situation. Champions are not made but good players can be developed with the right system, and the British always seem to have done best when treated on an individual level. It is wrong to say there is a lack of young talent in Britain but it is true that the the talent- spotting net is not cast wide enough nor is there enough encouragement given to late developers. When our top juniors emerge from our present competitive system they are not mentally tough, or confident under pressure, nor do many seem to relish competition. These are dangerous signs.

Top-class tennis is about confidence and how to compete under pressure. Ms Newberry's wish to move players from their chosen coaches is hardly likely to improve matters in this direction. But one can only wish her luck in a tricky job. She needs to get it right otherwise Virginia Wade, who won Wimbledon 17 years ago, will remain Britain's last Grand Slam woman champion for another 17 years.

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