A missionary and his roadshow

Two months and 41 towns, but just one message from Hagelauer - take tennis to the children

An impressive build and craggy good looks are clear evidence that Patrice Hagelauer is not a man to mess with. A brick wall, you feel, would be no better than evens in any confrontation - which is just as well, since a brick wall is what the Lawn Tennis Association's performance director is bidding to demolish.

An impressive build and craggy good looks are clear evidence that Patrice Hagelauer is not a man to mess with. A brick wall, you feel, would be no better than evens in any confrontation - which is just as well, since a brick wall is what the Lawn Tennis Association's performance director is bidding to demolish.

Hagelauer, a 52-year-old Moroccan-born Frenchman, is 20 months into attempting to do for Britain what he achieved with such distinction in France, laying down a junior development programme to propel more youngsters to success in the professional game. The groundwork of a decade ago is dramatically reflected in the current world rankings: six from France in the men's top 50 and seven in the women's leading 30.

A former coach of Yannick Noah and Henri Leconte, Hagelauer dismantled a few barricades in establishing France's much-admired grassroots system. This week he will be assessing the results of a two-month, 41-venue performance roadshow around the country which ended a few days ago. However, he knows well enough already the two biggest hurdles to progress; a lack of numbers among the children and the antagonism at many tennis clubs towards promoting junior programmes.

Last year's inaugural roadshow resulted in 140 boys and girls between 10 and 13 being earmarked for consideration for Britain's six regional tennis academies in Bath, Cambridge, Leeds, Nottingham, Sutton and Welwyn, with a seventh due to open in Bolton next year.

"Divided by four age groups and eight categories, 140 is not many," he said. "I hope this year we are going to get 170 children and next year reach 200. I am looking for 250 to 300 eventually.

"This programme is my barometer. The standard is OK but if we start with a limited base, as we are doing right now, we will struggle with numbers at the top. I would really worry if in two years we don't get 200 in the futures programme. I will not only be unhappy, but I would worry from a personal point of view because this is a goal for me. If I can't succeed I would accept that my message to the clubs and counties has not been good enough.

"I am not sending an ultimatum," stressed Hagelauer, who is on a no-contract, six-months' notice arrangement with the LTA. "It is just that at the moment the tennis played at clubs in this country is more of a leisure nature than competitive. The clubs are the key. If they will not respond to my urgings for good, competitive junior programmes what can I do? I can't build covered courts for children. You need a structure, an organisation."

In the last 10 years, while the number of tennis clubs in Britain has halved to 2,600, the LTA has channelled much of its vast cash haul from Wimbledon profits into improved club facilities but is now becoming more hard-nosed about such grants, insisting they are harnessed to junior development.

"The other day I was chatting to two members at a club," said Hagelauer, declining to reveal which one. "I was telling them the importance of junior development. They insisted it was the LTA's responsibility to change this. I asked what they were doing about a programme for children at their club and they said they didn't have one. I said: 'You just come here and benefit from the indoor facilities, mostly paid for by the LTA, who you criticise. Unless you are doing something yourselves I don't want to listen to your criticisms.'

"They said, 'You are going to find it difficult.' I said, 'I know, but unless people like you realise what has to be done, how is it possible to change?' This is my biggest problem, changing attitudes. It's a real battle, that we need to win together.

"Growing up in Morocco we could play for hours because the weather was nice. Here," he said, glancing out of the LTA's Queen's Club training centre windows at low cloud, "you can't play outside today and tomorrow is probably going to be the same. Promising 11 and 12-year-olds need to play at least eight hours a week. If they don't have access to facilities, no chance. Do you know how many juniors in this country play more than 20 matches a year? Six thousand. That's ridiculous. Before we can really talk about improvements we need 20,000 competing, and playing 50 matches a year.

"In Sweden, France and Spain the adults are proud of their junior programmes and the assistance they can offer. When the kids play with adults they adapt, they learn. Some British clubs are developing initiatives but they are not really competitive and definitely not performance programmes.

"A club staging junior matches every two weeks would soon find that 10 per cent of the kids are more talented, more committed, dreaming of becoming champions. I need help for these players from the clubs, and if clubs refuse to recognise their juniors are the next generation of adult members, they deserve to die.

"Twenty years ago I was a member of the Racing Club de France and the junior programme was like a kindergarten. Now it is one of the best-organised features of the club, a model for the Paris area. I am vice-president of a club in France which devotes 30 per cent of its funds to juniors, funds provided by the adult membership."

Hagelauer says French attitudes changed 20 years ago. "British people are very conservative, so it takes a while to convince them. But when they are convinced, they go for it. I have been very happy with the speed at which the Futures programme and the academies have been set up, and this speed of reaction can only help in the long run.

"Having just one top home-bred player in a country like Britain is clearly not enough. With increasing numbers of juniors, in 10 years we could have six players in the top 100."

But, he emphasised, so much depended on some movement in the clubs.

That brick wall again.

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