Casting the net in hope of 'filling gaps in system'

Verbal volley directed at the LTA as GB Tennis Girls take the initiative in search of tomorrow's stars. Alex Hayes reports

We have long been told that "men are from Mars, women are from Venus". However, we never realised that the same comparison could also be made between certain members of the fairer sex. Indeed, where tennis is concerned, British women are as far removed from Venus, and the rest of the game's stars, as at any time in the history of the sport.

This is not a rant by John McEnroe, a notorious critic of the way British tennis, and particularly the women, have progressed. Nor is it the condescending view of the world's best female players. Rather, this is the candid assessment of the players who best understand the problem: British women.

Helen Crook is just one of a long list who feels that she never fulfilled her potential. "Or that I was never really given the opportunity to fulfil it," she says, by way of criticising the Lawn Tennis Association. "I think there are loads of talented girls in the country. Unfortunately, there is not a proper system in place either to identify them or help them improve."

Having grown disillusioned, Crook teamed up with the former British player Victoria Davies four years ago to create GB Tennis Girls. Since then, the organisation has grown in status within the ranks of British women, and annoyance within the corridors of the LTA. "A lot of girls feel that the LTA's policy of picking out certain players and setting them targets is wrong," says Crook, who has been competing in the women's doubles at SW19. "The facts speak for themselves: every funded player in the past has failed. We think that's a direct result of the filtering process being too narrow."

In order to widen the net and catch a British Venus or Serena Williams, GB Tennis Girls have decided to set up a national tournament that they hope will "fill the gaps left by the British system". Go Pro would be a winner-takes-all event, held at both Under-17 and Under-21 level, which would be open to anyone who wanted to enter.

"Only by adopting this FA Cup mentality," says Jo Ward, the organisation's communications manager, "can we be sure that everyone is given an equal chance to have a go. If you don't, you risk letting some good players slip away."

The winners will be fully funded for two years, so as to give them the best chance of making it on the professional tour. They will also receive personal training sessions with a "prominent former female No 1", although no names are yet being revealed. Crook and Ward hope that the first Go Pro will be held next year at a "prestigious venue". Wimbledon is on the list of possible choices. However, in order to make their dream a reality, they require £150,000 in sponsorship. "We'll get there," Crook says, "because there are enough people in this country who want to help the dire situation improve."

The dearth of talent on these shores, especially among the girls, is nothing new. Nor is the perennial attack on the LTA, who are forever accused of not spending their yearly £55m wisely. But the critics are getting more famous and vociferous. "It makes no sense," says the nine-time Wimbledon singles champion Martina Navratilova. "They've been getting a whole bunch of money every year for a long time now, and it's produced nothing really. I certainly would never have made it under that system. The main problem is that they're just trying to do it one way. You just have to have the right kind of player and not coach them in only one way."

The LTA way is to identify young talents and then set them funding-related targets. If a player reaches those objectives, she is rewarded financially. If she does not, she can quickly be dropped from the fast-tracking scheme. "We've looked at the alternatives," said an LTA spokes-man, "but the simple truth is that the LTA are not a bank, who can just hand out money to everyone. We feel we are right to give certain carefully identified individuals the backing they need. It does not mean we will fund that player forever [as their recent withdrawal of funds from Alex Bogdanovic proves] and it does not guarantee success, but this is still the best and fairest system."

Not surprisingly, Crook and Ward rebut those claims: "For too long now the LTA have believed that funding so-called mediocrity is a pointless exercise," Crook says. "The LTA will always say it is better to support those who can achieve excellence. But how do they know that a 12- or 13-year-old girl is going to be mediocre or brilliant? It's impossible. For a start, girls mature later in tennis. And secondly, you simply cannot say for sure that a kid won't make it." The LTA disagree.

What no one disputes is that Britain needs more success stories like Jade Curtis. Thanks to the dedication of her step-father, the 14-year-old is ranked No 4 in the world and will appear at Junior Wimbledon. "It proves money alone will not create a superstar," Crook says. "We took on a girl recently who had been told by the LTA that she would never reach the required standards, and turned her career around. We just spoke to her. It's not all about finances. You have to encourage players."

Crook adds: "We have to start believing in our girls and tell them that they are good enough to compete with the best. Otherwise, we may as well give up."

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