Crowther 'turning the oil tanker'

Money alone won't save the British game. Alex Hayes hears the plan for change
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Three months after taking over as the LTA's performance director, David Felgate has finally announced the plan which he hopes will drag British tennis out of the doldrums. "Ask not what the Lawn Tennis Association can do for you," he said on Wednesday, "but what you can do for yourselves." Not quite JFK, but at least DF's bold revolution is on its way.

Truth be told, there is no time to lose. Following this country's worst Wimbledon in the open era, when no home-grown woman reached the second round and only Tim Henman flew the men's flag in the second week, tennis is in dire straits. Not surprisingly, much of the blame for this latest débâcle has again been directed at the LTA and their chief executive, John Crowther. No one can understand why the powers that be are seemingly incapable of producing more competitive players, despite the fact that they make an average of £30 million a year from The Championships.

"It's not as simple as that," said Crowther, who has been the LTA's chief executive for six years. "We are now making fundamental changes to the way the sport is run in this country, but we have to accept that everything won't happen overnight. Changing the direction of an oil tanker is not something that is done quickly."

The LTA have, thanks largely to their former performance director, Patrice Hagelauer, recently introduced a range of schemes that should, in time, produce a healthy number of top-50 players. But what was happening to the money in the past? Crowther is naturally reluctant to criticise previous regimes, but it is clear that British tennis went backwards during the last half of the 20th century.

"I think the LTA have always invested," he said, "but without the focus which we have developed over the last few years. We now have a single vision with three priorities: more juniors, a vibrant club scene, and better performance at the top of the game."

The latter ambition has been placed in the hands of Felgate, who made his presence felt with a series of changes last week. Jeremy Bates has been promoted to head of performance, and will have day-to-day responsibility for men's and women's national training and for the performance of head coaches, while Martin Bohm, a Swede who helped nurture Thomas Enqvist and Magnus Norman, has been hired to coach Alex Bogdanovic and Martin Lee. Alan Jones, Jo Durie's former coach, is leaving to set up a private training squad, and the long-serving Mark Cox has been stripped of his role as director of national futures programming.

Crowther is adamant that results will follow, but argues that because British tennis started its recovery from such a poor position, £30m a year is nowhere near enough funding to put all the wrongs right.

He also insists that no money has been wasted during his tenure, pointing to the furniture in his office and remarking that "it was here when I arrived in 1997". So how, then, is the golden egg distributed each year? "We have spent £12.8m on the bottom end of the pyramid," Crowther said, breaking down the £33.1m budget of the last 12 months, "with almost half of that total going on the building of indoor courts and floodlighting; £7.3m on the top 600 competitive players in the country; £3m on staging over 2,000 tournaments of all standards and sizes; £3.8m on running costs; £1.5m on marketing; and the dreaded £4.7m in corporation tax [which Crowther is currently campaigning to have abolished, as he believes tennis is a non profit-making amateur sport that should qualify as a charitable aim]."

While Crowther seems to be steering the LTA in the right direction, it remains a mystery how Belgium, with an annual tennis budget of £3.6m, can produce more talent than Britain. Even allowing for the fact that local authorities contribute more generously to the building and maintenance of courts in most other European countries, the truth is that tennis is more than adequately funded in this country. "But it's not just about money," Crowther insisted, "it's also about attitude. We're not going to be a successful tennis nation unless we get more players."

But there is a catch. In order to increase the number of players, more courts need to be made available. However, it would cost the LTA £1.2bn to build the same number of indoor courts that exist in France, while the vast majority of private clubs continue to make life difficult for those who do not fit into the white, middle-class remit. "That is changing, though," Crowther said, "because we will only fund those clubs who follow the LTA's mantra of 'more players, better players'. We no longer want to hear of juniors being kicked off courts because they're wearing the wrong clothes. Without the kids, Britain has no chance. We currently have a competitive base of 20,000 juniors compared with 160,000 in France. That's simply not good enough."

The same might be said of the LTA, but Crowther believes that the time has come to stop the annual bashing and get behind the organisation. "There is a great tradition here of knocking the establishment," he said. "I always think that the BBC are in a very similar position to us: people love having a go, but equally there would be a big hole in their lives without us." A £33.1m hole, to be precise.