Sport on TV: Hothouse flowers no match for man of Seoul

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The Independent Online
SOMETIMES history happens in your lifetime. This week, a nation put old ways behind it, shrugged off the shackles of time and ventured forth, freshly empowered, towards new and unexplored freedoms. The unimaginable became reality: Britain's Jeremy Bates won a tennis tournament.

Sure, the cynics will remind you that his victory last weekend in Seoul, South Korea, was in what they call a 'third-tier event', ie several platforms down from the Grand Slam championships. But even if it was only the Mitsubishi Microwave Oven Pro-Am Challenge (prize: a pounds 10 postal order and as much Robinsons Barley Water as you can drink) there was cause here for unselfconscious rejoicing.

Defeating someone else who didn't have a bigger tournament to play in, Bates became the first British player to win a men's singles title on the ATP tour since 1977, when Mark Cox had yet to make his almost imperceptible transition from competitor to commentator. When I heard the news last Sunday, I immediately drove over to Wimbledon, the home of British tennis, to join the throng of celebrating fans forming elated congas and flinging flowers over the perimeter walls. Sadly, by the time I got there, the partying was already over. But still, it was a privilege to be alive at this hour.

The Bates triumph gave this week's programme in the gripping documentary series Champions (Monday) a little zip of topicality Channel 4 can't have expected - rather as if a film about Elvis had gone out in the week he turned up alive and well and driving a bus in Hull. Set at Bisham Abbey, England's intensive tennis school for children aged eight and over, 'Hothouse Tennis' watched the training handed out to our most gifted hopefuls and suggested that there is no reason why a British player shouldn't snatch the Korean Open every 17 years.

Here were the seedlings of the nation's tennis future, made subject to forced growth under glass rather than being left, as must have happened in recent times, to make the best of it in a parched and crumbly Gro-Bag. Roughly speaking, the timetable on an average day looked like this: tennis, then double tennis, followed by extra tennis and then games (tennis).

In the opening scene, a couple of boys, only slightly taller than their rackets, stood at the baseline while a teacher beamed serves down at them at 120mph - good character-forming stuff. Later, each of the class got to hone their concentration by attempting to serve while the rest of the group tried to distract them. A 13-year- old girl focused steely eyes on the net-cord, utterly blank to the kids bouncing up and down beside her shouting 'Mr Blobby]' and making lavatorial noises. Right there, you glimpsed, with a slight chill, what it takes.

Peter Terry, the school's sports psychologist spoke of a 'pervasive reluctance to even express the possibility of international success'. The idea was to fight this, not just with cross-country fitness runs so gruelling they had some of the kids close to throwing up in a hedge, but also by building 'mental toughness'. There was a tacit acceptance that this might involve encouraging characteristics (aggression, arrogance) which more traditional forms of education would attempt to sit on. It was all about 'wanting it' and 'wanting it badly'. All in all, there seemed to be more talk about 'belief' at Bisham Abbey than you would hear in the most philosophical of monasteries.

Of course, you can believe what you like, but if your backhand doesn't cut the mustard, there's little hope for you. The school seemed to set encouraging store by the physical essentials. The most promising pupils were particularly hot on vociferous self-chastisement and on-court racket-tossing. Whoever was running the grunting classes needn't fear the verdict of any visiting government inspector. And similarly the course on post-match TV interview techniques was clearly bang up to requirements. After getting knocked out in a junior championship, one of the girls pointed out: 'If I'd got those points, it would have been a lot closer.' This was a text-book performance.

The girls were drilled by Olga Morozova, a Wimbledon finalist in 1974 and a former Russian national coach. She stood court-side, shouting things like: 'You're too nice, Zoe. Come on]' Olga spoke eloquently about how competitive the game had become over the past 20 years but then maintained that British failure on the circuit could be blamed on the press. There you were, thinking the poor state of our tennis was down to the fact that, until this week, you could number the decade's national triumphs on the fingers of no hands; and all along it was actually the fault of sports reporters making jokes about Buster Mottram.

The fact is the British media tend to be almost tediously in thrall to our own players, willing to throw open the front pages at the merest glimmer of success. Hence this week's coverage, which was embarrassingly jubilant, maybe. But say what you like about Jeremy Bates - he's got Seoul.