Tennis: The tennis talent scout

The untold stories in a year of buried treasure: AFTER TIM AND GREG?
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The Independent Online
The soaraway success of Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski on the world scene has had the sort of effect nobody in charge of British tennis expected. It has brought a crisis. Following their achievements over the past three years the floodgates of talent were expected to burst open. Instead, they have remained firmly shut.

The Lawn Tennis Association, which in the 19 years between 1980 and 1998 has been handed the staggering sum of just under pounds 250m in Wimbledon profits for the development of British tennis, has produced only Henman through the ranks as a home-bred top-10 player.

"We are concerned," admitted Richard Lewis, the LTA's director of international and professional tennis. "We have to create the right environment for the good juniors to make the transition to the professional circuit and we are not doing enough."

So the LTA, with 196 employees and an annual salary and fees bill of pounds 5,246,000 according to the 1998 accounts, is about to take on an extra member of staff who will be handed the title of performance director and charged with the job of turning world-ranked juniors into world- beating grown-ups.

"The performance director is the key to our future plans," said John Crowther, the LTA's chief executive. "At the moment we don't have one person completely focused on performance and I felt this was a shortfall in the organisation."

Until taking on his present role two years ago Lewis was director of national training, with responsibility for development. The pouring of Wimbledon's largesse into coaching and the building of more indoor courts soon saw a promising crop of juniors coming through and collecting vastly improved results on the world scene. Then the "British disease" seemed to take over.

James Baily won the Australian Open junior title, only to give up the sport soon afterwards because of the pressure his victory had created. Martin Lee became the world No 1 junior, but on the senior circuit his ranking stands at 334, while Miles Maclagan, another glittering junior prospect, stands at 284 in the rankings.

"Lee needs another 18 months before one would say he hasn't made the transition but I am still quite optimistic," said Lewis, "and it is good to see Maclagan coming back after injury, though he doesn't have age on his side." Maclagan is 24, the same age as Henman. Chris Wilkinson, Britain's third-ranked player, is ranked 184 and will be 29 in January. Perhaps most ominously, the winner of last month's National Championships was Danny Sapsford, a 29-year-old who has virtually given up singles to earn his corn on the doubles circuit.

It is from such players that David Lloyd is forced to make up the Davis Cup squad that he captains. No wonder he says: "Heaven help us if either Tim or Greg got injured before our tie against the United States in April. I don't know what would happen." What happened last year when both our top men were sidelined by injury was that Britain were beaten 4-1 at home by Zimbabwe.

The LTA are seriously concerned about the growing gap and their fingers are firmly crossed as they continue to invest Wimbledon's millions in the hunt for another young Henman. "Don't forget, when Tim was 17 it would have been hard to have picked him out of the pack," Crowther said. "He was never better than 50th in the world as a junior. Our role is to provide the best facilities and we invest pounds 8m a year in that. But it has to be a burning desire which takes an individual to the top."

Lewis feels that the level of junior improvement will eventually pay off. "Until three or four years ago we didn't have players worthy of the investment. Now we are definitely seeing the benefit. The trick is to have a stream of juniors who you think have a genuine chance and then the law of averages should take over."

And then, when he or she is appointed by the end of next month, the performance director may eventually have something with which to work.