Tennis: Bailey the lead in rejuvenated cast: After an encouraging Wimbledon, British tennis is prospering. Guy Hodgson reports from Bristol

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The Independent Online
YOU COULD quantify what Wimbledon had done for home tennis this week. Three days into the Bristol Challenger Trophy and a print run of programmes had to be ordered to supplement the 500 originals. A year ago half that number had remained unsold.

If you can't have victory, stirring defeat will do. Chris Bailey, unknown outside the inner circle of tennis watchers three weeks ago, was pursued by autograph hunters and proposals of marriage. Andrew Foster and Chris Wilkinson had become sufficiently absorbed into the public's awareness to merit spectator nicknames - Wilko and Fozzie.

In five weeks the mood has changed from an unrelating pessimism, only occasionally lifted by Jeremy Bates, into one of guarded optimism. Our players, the men anyway, are not winning tournaments but they have gained respect. They can upset the elite of the court andthey do not just lie down and expect to be trampled on. The national sporting joke no longer seems relevent.

At Bristol this week six of the eight quarter-finalists were home players, albeit in a tournament that has attracted only players ranked outside the world's top 100. More pertinently, a comparable cast 12 months ago yielded only one Briton in the last eight. 'It's the knock-on effect,' Bates said. 'One gets a good result and it lifts the rest.'

Certainly, the rankings have been pointing in the upwards direction. Wilkinson, Foster, Ross Matheson, Miles Maclagan and Paul Robinson are rated higher now than they have ever been and Clare Wood has entered the women's top 100 for the first time. The figures are not staggering but they point to signs of encouragement.

'If you look at the ranking list at the end of Wimbledon that's what counts and that's what the players pay attention to,' Richard Lewis, the director of national training at the Lawn Tennis Association, said. 'I wouldn't use the word 'happy' but I'm pleased the results are getting better. We have a long, long way to go and nobody is more aware of that than me.

'The junior results are improving quite significantly. At Under- 16 and Under-14 level we are starting to win European tournaments which we never used to win before. That is the result of very significant investment.'

Lewis's department has a pounds 2m budget and a change of emphasis within the LTA can be gauged by the number of coaches it employs. When Lewis, a member of the squad that reached the Davis Cup final in 1978, retired in 1983 there was only one, now there are 25. 'They are good coaches too,' Bailey, one point from beating Goran Ivanisevic at Wimbledon, said. 'As good as you can get. Professional people doing a professional job. It's very different from the time the LTA used to employ school teachers. Now the right people are in position.

The Dutch system is the one most regularly put forward as the one that the LTA should ape. A small country with no great tennis tradition, the Netherlands had eight top-100 players - four men and four women - going into Wimbledon, the most prominent of which was Richard Krajicek, a semi-finalist in the French Open and the ninth seed at 'The Championships'. If they can do it, why can't we?

A reason, one that Lewis acknowledges, is a lack of clay tennis surfaces in Britain. Lawn tennis, it is called, and lawn tennis it remained until the cost effectiveness of concrete was discovered by local clubs and recreation departments. So much so that you can count the number of clay courts in this country on the fingers of one hand.

The last Wimbledon champion to have been brought up predominantly on grass was Pat Cash and even he spent his formative years on courts baked so hard by the Australian sun that they took on the characteristics, like the Centre Court this year, of concrete. Germany, which has produced definitive serve-and-volleyers in Boris Becker and Michael Stich, did not have a grass court until last year. They both learned the basics on the sure bounce of clay and only discovered their aptitude on nature's own court when they got to Britain.

Nick Carr, Bailey's coach, is a New Zealander who has worked for both the LTA and the Dutch. 'Clay is the surface for developing players,' he said. 'It's perfect for the thinking, resourceful player. It teaches a player how to move an opponent around, how to vary strokes and the value of patience.

'The irony is that the British public would love clay court tennis. It's a mental game, more like a chess match. A lot of grass play is so boring. The big serve dominates and rallies last only three or four strokes. You can bluff on grass, hide your deficiencies behind the serve. You can't do that on clay.'

Carr cannot see a British Krajicek on the immediate horizon but concurs that things are moving in the right direction. 'It's getting close in terms of co-ordination between players and coaches,' he said. 'Billy Knight (manager of men's national training) has done a very good job but it's something that should have been done a long time ago.'

Meanwhile, Bailey was surrounded by Bristol school children patiently signing dozens of autographs. 'Imagine what it would have been like if I'd beaten Ivanisevic,' he said.

Imagine the reaction if we ever have another Wimbledon champion . . .

(Photographs omitted)

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