Tennis: LTA moves to divide structure and conquer the world: Professionals may break from committee rule. John Roberts on a plan to help the players competing for national titles this week

Click to follow
The Independent Online
AS Jeremy Bates and Jo Durie prepare to defend their titles against determined opposition at the Volkswagen National Championships, which start at Telford today, a move is afoot which could improve the prospects of their successors in the British game.

The Lawn Tennis Association is endeavouring to remove the management of the professional side of the sport from the traditional committee structure.

Discussions are taking place aimed at persuading the committee to concentrate on the grass roots of amateur club and county tennis, affording the professional playing side an opportunity to function more effectively.

This latest step in the chase to catch up with the rest of the world comes at a time when British players are at last showing a glimmer of the competitive spirit which has been lacking during the past decade. Separate management, along German lines, enabling a professional staff to make decisions without first having to negotiate a labyrinth, could hasten the progress to respectability.

The LTA is open to ridicule because of Britain's failure to produce players of international quality when funded by Wimbledon's millions. The governing body has made ground, if belatedly, by building indoor centres to foster the sport and providing international satellite and challenger tournaments to give players an opportunity to gain world computer-ranking points and experience.

Convincing the committee that separate management for the professionals is the next logical step is a delicate process.

'We are always looking at ourselves to see if we could be better organised,' Ian Peacock, the LTA's executive director, said yesterday. 'Certainly, various discussions have, and are, taking place. We are not in a position at the moment to make any statement about it, other than to say we've got to be a forward-looking body. The game of tennis is growing in Great Britain now, thank goodness. Our standards are improving, and we've got to make sure that we've got an organisation structured to face the game in the 21st century.'

Improved standards is a comparative term in British tennis. The sunshine which blessed Wimbledon lingered longer than expected on several home participants. The nation currently has a man and a woman, Bates and Clare Wood, in the world's top 100. Along with Bates, Chris Wilkinson, Mark Petchey, Chris Bailey and Andrew Foster, are ranked in the top 200.

Aside from the pot-shots from without, the LTA continues to experience difficulty apportioning financial support without risking criticism from players. Foster is the latest. The 21-year-old from Stoke complained yesterday that the governing body had severed his travel allowance since he made pounds 23,000 by advancing to play Pete Sampras in the fourth round at Wimbledon. This, Foster contended, restricted his capacity to pay for an alternative coach when the LTA's Nick Brown was unavailable.

Richard Lewis, the LTA's director of national training, responded by pointing out that nearly pounds 250,000 had been invested in Foster since he was 13. 'We believe that now he is reaping the rewards of that investment, together with the continuing support he gets from the LTA,' Lewis continued. 'It is wholly appropriate that we invest in the next generation of young players.'

In team events, Britain's men must win on clay in Portugal next March in order to become contenders for a place the Davis Cup World Group. Otherwise they will face a battle to avoid demotion to Group Two of the Euro-African Zone. For the women, winning the European Team Cup, which is not as grand as it sounds, brought some consolation for losing ground in the Federation Cup. And the younger players achieved an encouraging victory against the United States in the Maureen Connolly Trophy.

Four of the Connolly Trophy team, Mandy Wainwright, Karen Cross, Julie Pullin and Lucie Ahl, are seeded for the Nationals behind Wood, a quarter-finalist at the recent Autoglass Classic at Brighton, and Durie.

The 33-year-old Durie, who has been troubled by a knee injury, has won the Nationals seven times, the last three consecutively. During the 10 years of the event, she has dropped only six sets in singles and has lost only 82 of 86 singles and doubles matches.

Bates, 31, has been the champion on four occasions and has spent the past six years exchanging the title with Andrew Castle, who has swapped his racket for a television microphone. 'We are not short of players who can hit the ball,' Bates said before leaving with the trophy last year. 'The step that has to be taken is from hitting the ball nicely to competing well.' He is about to discover how many of his rivals have made the necessary transition.

Comments