How to play the Lloyd way; THE MONDAY INTERVIEW - Sport - The Independent

How to play the Lloyd way; THE MONDAY INTERVIEW

John Roberts talks to a rebel turned Davis Cup coach who might run the game if the Lawn Tennis Association dared ask him

A tennis racket never seemed far from David Lloyd's grasp, but nowadays he wields a mobile telephone while taking care of overheads, generating a little topspin and delivering the odd volley.

Few sportsman have made such a spectacular transition to business, particularly by developing the playground. Lloyd sold his empire of tennis and leisure centres to Whitbread for pounds 20m last year, while remaining as the company's chairman.

Around the same time, he became the captain of Britain's ridiculed Davis Cup team, a bold step by the Lawn Tennis Association, almost akin to its football cousins beckoning Brian Clough at his abrasive best.

To top it all, the 48-year-old Lloyd has expressed an interest in taking over as the LTA's chief executive, which amounts to running the British game - or would do were he to be installed - when Ian Peacock vacates the job in September.

But is the rebel seriously tempted to become an establishment figure, or is he merely teasing? "It would have to be done on my terms, and I don't mean financially," he said, expounding his position between fielding business calls at the headquarters of David Lloyd Leisure at Heston, near Heathrow Airport.

"Someone like myself is self-sufficient and does not need the job for security," he emphasised. "That makes an enormous difference to your decisions, it really does. If every time you make a decision you think, `Christ, I could be fired here', and it's your last penny, you don't make a tough call. You really have to be absolutely confident. You make the call, and three years down the line, if the game doesn't improve, you walk out.

"They might be tough decisions. They might hurt people. If someone's hurt, someone gains. That's the fact of life."

He would appear to have more than enough decisions to make as it is, planning seven new "profit centres" to be built during the next two months at a cost of pounds 45m, bringing the total to 25. Catching him in the office is an achievement. He spends only one day a week there.

"I think you've always got to keep your options open. I'm enjoying what I do. I think I'm very important to the company, but we've got a lot of very good people here. If someone said there's a job at the LTA tomorrow, then I'd say sorry, I'm not available. But if there's one available in six month's time, I don't know, and nor do they.

"All I'm saying is while I wouldn't apply for the job, I'd have to say, `Look, I'm available, guys, do you want me to come and talk to you, yes or no?' And if they say yes, I've got to to be able to make decisions on the spot and not be criticised until my contract runs out. If you don't, you're going to get a guy in who's a yes-person.

"That's what I'd be very worried about. I think you've got to give a guy the ground rules, set the budgets, and then you let him run, as long as he doesn't do something criminal, or whatever. You've got to put people in position who are actually better than you at what they do."

Peacock, 61, has likened his role to that of "wet nurse to an ailing child," adding that he has "spent 10 years nurturing it to a state where it's now just about off the bottle." The next stage, he hopes, would see tennis in Britain develop into "an unruly child", needing to be kept under control during boom years reminiscent of the surges in Sweden and Germany.

"I personally, 11 years ago, would have had a rebellion," Lloyd countered. "I would have chucked - not chucked, that's not quite right - I would have said: `Right, how are we really going to go for this, now'. That's the way I am.

"Ian Peacock has told me that he understands the way I would have done it, but that he has tried to do it gently and slowly, putting people in place. And who is to say who's right and wrong? We could never test the theory. We can't go back 11 years.

"My philosophy is to do things quickly. I'm a great believer that if it's wrong, it's wrong. It isn't going to change by pruning. Often you've got to chop things off and replace them. That's how I would do it.

"I like Ian very much, and he's obviously put a nice structure in place, and he's got the indoor tennis initiative off the ground, so that's a success. But, having the best tournament in the world and a very wealthy LTA, because of the money from Wimbledon, I still think we can go forward. And I think we've got to do it fast, because other countries are really developing quickly. You've got countries coming in with players you've never heard of. The LTA have got to make a big decision. They have to to go for an administrator, like Ian, or for someone who is going to do it differently."

The alternative type Lloyd has in mind, other than himself, is Ion Tiriac, the Romanian player-turned-promoter who managed Boris Becker for 10 years and has designs on becoming Steffi Graf's agent.

"If I did the job," Lloyd said, "I'd be out there. I think I could put someone in who could do the paperwork on pounds 25,000, whatever. What they can't do is out there, doing the business. I'm like a track-suit manager. I've got to see players and go to the regions. I've got to be in the field. I can't be stuck in an office, dictating letters. I can do those letters in the car, on the phone.

"I can run the structure, I can run the business, because that's something I'm good at. If there's any spare fat, I can get rid of it. That's what I've been trained to do.

"I have to pay shareholders. It's a little bit different when you're a public company to being a funded association. I'm not saying that in a rude way. It's exactly what they LTA is. You don't have to look at the pennies quite the same way. I don't believe in negative budgets, I think everything should make a profit. I mean, the profit might be a tennis player.

"The chief executive of the LTA, and the LTA itself, has a mandate, and that is to make the game of tennis in this country better. What is better? More people playing, better standards.

"If I did the job, there would be more coaches and managers in the regions, better qualified, better motivated, and on bigger wages. They wouldn't be office people, they'd be track-suited managers, given the responsibility of finding champions. If the rim of the wheel is weak, the centre can never be strong. That's the philosophy I would implement immediately."

Assuming, of course, that he is not buried beneath a scrum of committee men. "I don't know if the LTA will ever change that way," he admitted.

"You've got to have a board, but a perfect board would be four executive directors and three non-executive directors. The non-executive directors would be there as corporate governments to make sure that the four aren't just going wild, and there must be some sort of veto.

"But the executive people have to be allowed to run the game, run the company. They're there, at source. They are the driving force. The councillors are nice people. I'm not saying kick them out. I just think there has to be a really powerful committee that has both LTA councillors and executive people, who can actually make a decision."

Some people dismissed Lloyd as a heretic the moment he advocated that Wimbledon ought to consider replacing its lawns with a synthetic surface to slow the pace of the game. "I just have this horrible feeling that Wimbledon will become a one-shot venue as far as the men's game is concerned," he said.

"It's not Wimbledon's fault that grass is quick or that modern rackets enable players to hit the ball harder. It's a reality. If they knew the game was going to go back to wooden rackets, OK. But I don't think they know that, therefore they've got to look at the only thing that can slow it down, which is the court surface.

"I love Wimbledon, and I'm worried that in four or five years time you won't see one rally. And I don't think that's what people want. They'll still come, but they'll come because they want to come to Wimbledon with their hat on to be seen. They won't be people who want to watch tennis, because there won't be any to watch."

Lloyd, and his younger brother, John, the more successful singles competitor, were introduced to the game by their father, Dennis. "My dad was in love with tennis. I don't think I've met any man, or woman, that is more fanatical about tennis than him. I love tennis, but I'm not in love with it. I can do something else. He lives for it. When John was married to Chris [Evert], dad believed he was Chris's coach. I mean, it was in a nice way."

Imagine the acute disappointment, years ago, when Dennis Lloyd was told he had to take an LTA coaching examination, and was failed. "They failed him because he was a natural and taught from the heart and not from the book," David Lloyd said. "I've read these coaching books - `you must not have a loop; you must be pointing to the net; you must have your feet like that' - and it's a load of bull. Tennis was never like that."

Equally irritating for Lloyd are those tennis clubs which exclude children from playing at weekends, or insist that new members undergo a playing- in test. "That is part and parcel of tennis's image as a middle-class game, which it isn't," he said. Things would improve, he added, if coaches learned to be more than tennis teachers and became the social hub of their clubs, rather like Butlins redcoats, "or your Club Med".

"I'm very upbeat, because I do see things happening," he said. "We've got to go for it and make tennis the best game in Britain. And that needs someone with insane desire."

`You really have to be absolutely confident. You make the call, and three years down the line, if the game doesn't improve, you walk out'

`They might be tough decisions. They might hurt people. If someone's hurt, someone gains. That's the fact of life'

`I'm a great believer that if it's wrong, it's wrong. It isn't going to change by pruning. Often you've got to chop things off and replace them'

`I'm like a track-suit manager. I've got to see players and go to the regions. I've got to be in the field. I can't be stuck in an office'

`I'm very upbeat, because I do see things happening. We've got to go for it and make tennis the best game in Britain'

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