From the bottom line to baseline

Simon O'Hagan finds the new tennis supremo keen to get down to business
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The Independent Online
When the newly appointed chief executive of the Lawn Tennis Association describes himself as a "gifted amateur", it is clear the ethos of understatement that runs through the sport's establishment is unlikely to change with the arrival of John Crowther.

Crowther, presently the chief executive of the defence systems division of Vickers Plc, may indeed be a novice in the tennis world - the 45-year- old is a recreational player who has never been involved in the sport professionally - but if ranking points were awarded in the fields of business and administration, the man who was last week named successor to Ian Peacock would come in near the top.

That the LTA has gone for someone of Crowther's background is an indication of how much importance is attached to the commercial side of a job in which the challenge is not so much how to make money - Wimbledon largely takes care of that - as how to spend it. In an era of multi-million pound television and sponsorship deals, a strong performance in the market place has become as vital to tennis as it has to any other leading sport. Thus, "project management" and "measurable milestones" are phrases that trip more easily off Crowther's tongue than "backhand drop-shot" or "audible obscenity".

It would be understandable if the LTA felt the playing side of the sport, as opposed to its structure and management, was less in need of expertise at the highest level. Thanks to Tim Henman, Greg Rusedski and a small group of rising juniors, British men's tennis has not looked in such good shape for a long time. But Crowther appreciates "the priority must be excellence at all levels" and that if tennis is to remain in the public eye, "we've got to have success in the professional game".

Crowther needs to familiarise himself with personnel and policy before a more detailed agenda emerges - he does not take up the post until 1 January - but he inherits a considerable legacy from his predecessor in the form of a five-year "strategy for change", announced this time last year, which put the emphasis on grass-roots tennis and changing the culture of a game which has long laboured under its middle-class image.

"I think what's planned is absolutely right," Crowther said. "Tennis must be a game for everyone. A lot of thought and groundwork has gone into the project. It's very ambitious but hopefully the skills I have will help bring it to fruition."

And while Crowther is hardly a revolutionary, he is no patrician either. He went to Malvern College and read mechanical engineering at London University. He is married with three sons and lives in Harrogate. He comes across much more as the civilised professional than the grandee of the debenture lounge.

Living up to media and public expectation is, he says, the biggest challenge of the job. "The trouble is that tennis is extremely diverse. You can't just pull a lever and produce champions overnight. My job is very much medium to long-term."

Priorities, however, are the women's game, which remains in a state of depression, and keeping youngsters involved in tennis once they are into their teens and rival sports and attractions are competing for their attention. Crowther would also like Britain to stage more international tournaments, such as last month's clay-court event in Bournemouth. It is a great job, but a big one. Some of those defence systems might come in handy.

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