Fleming backing Britain

Simon O'Hagan meets McEnroe's old sidekick who is ready for a new challenge
Click to follow
SAY what you like about British tennis, but you can never accuse it of insularity. Recruits to the cause in recent years have included Janet Newberry, an American who was the manager of women's national training; Warren Jacques, the Australian who was captain of the Davis Cup team; his compatriot Ian Barclay, who is the Rover-LTA schoolboys' coach; and Olga Morozova, once of the Soviet Union, who coaches the girls in the Rover-LTA scheme. And that's before we've got to Greg Rusedski, lately of Canada.

The newest source of overseas wisdom is perhaps the unlikeliest of the lot: Peter Fleming, the tall blond American once ranked No 8 in the world in singles but remembered better as John McEnroe's moody sidekick when the two of them dominated men's doubles, winning four Wimbledon and three US Open titles between 1979 and 1984. Last week the 40-year-old Fleming took charge as coach of the LTA team sponsored by John Laing, made up of three aspiring young British men in Andrew Richardson, Jamie Delgado and Nick Gould.

Fleming may not be in the McEnroe class of establishment enemy, but his arrival on the British scene still has a culture clash written all over it. While both eloquent and coolly charming, as viewers of Match of the Day during last summer's Wimbledon will remember, there is still a whiff of danger about him, a scathingness that hardly fits with the general ethos of the British game where deference still has a place. Above all, as one of the game's hardest competitors Fleming is the last person you would expect to be prepared to associate himself with anything less than the best. British men's tennis may be on the up, but it still has a long way to go.

So what's this lean streak of New Jersey doing here? Fleming's British connection goes back to 1980 when he met a girl from Yorkshire at Queen's Club who was to become his wife. When he retired in 1987, they and their two children went to live in New York and Fleming set up in marketing. But after five years of being worn down by the city and the work, he brought the family - there was now a third child - back to England and the house in Fulham in south-west London that they had kept on.

Sitting in its front room last week, Fleming explained his career move. "When I was playing I thought there must be something more than this, yet when I was a businessman I realised I really loved tennis, that I'd be stupid to do anything else." So two years ago he offered his services to the LTA. He was baffled, he says, that it took them a year to bring him on board, but eventually Bill Knight, head of men's national training, gave him a brief to look at players on a part-time basis. Fleming forged a good relationship with Richardson, the giant 21-year-old from Lincolnshire, before Delgado, aged 18 from Maidenhead, and Gould, aged 23 from Bristol, joined a group which now has formal backing. All are ranked between 412 and 532, but Fleming believes in their potential and that he can help them realise it.

"I want to be successful," he said. "This is not some kind of a sideline. I see a lot of talented guys who haven't got the most out of themselves. I remember practising with some young British guys when I was on the tour and the coaching set-up here was pathetic. That's improved quite a bit, the attitudes of the coaches. Their sights are set a bit higher. Not as high as I have them set. I still think some of them could do with a reality check.

"The aim shouldn't be to be the best in Britain. If all that takes is to be 100 in the world that's very mediocre in global terms. If Sweden with a population of 8 million can produce three No 1s in the last 20 years, then surely Britain can produce a couple of guys in the top 50. So to accept anything less is appalling. I don't want to bad-mouth the people who've been working here a long time, but perhaps one of the things I can bring is confidence, maybe credibility. When I tell a guy he has the talent to be in the top 50, then a player might listen to me more readily than if he were told the same thing by a county coach."

So does Fleming now consider himself a Brit? "No. I like Britain very much. I can see myself living here for a long time. But if there was a Davis Cup match between the United States and a British team which included my guys, I'd find that very tough." With Fleming around, it might just happen.