David Felgate: Felgate upheaval spells end of pessimism

Performance director of LTA looks for inspiration from other sporting success stories in attempt to resurrect British tennis
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The four-digit entry code on the door of the Lawn Tennis Association's International Training Centre - which has since been changed should anyone be thinking of dropping in uninvited - was, on the day I visit, 1-9-6-6.

Whether this number has been deliberately chosen to evoke the year in which England's footballers won the World Cup, I'm not sure. It wouldn't surprise me. David Felgate, formerly Tim Henman's coach and now the LTA's thrusting performance director, likes to be inspired by success in other sports. He positively bubbles with admiration for Clive Woodward, another World Cup winner, and is almost as effusive on the subject of Bill Sweetenham, the coach of the British swimming team.

Sweetenham is Australian, but Felgate is not averse to Britain importing the best foreign coaches. His predecessor was, after all, the Frenchman Patrice Hagelauer. And he is, after all, a rabid Arsenal fan.

Moreover, he unleashed one JP McEnroe on some of our more promising youngsters this week.

"John has a lot to offer and can certainly be inspirational," he says.

I can sense a "but" coming on. "But they still have to work hard day in, day out. It's like Pele working with some young footballers for a day. He might inspire them, but he's not going to change their lives."

The LTA, if Felgate gets his way, however, might just change their lives. He has set about his job with characteristic vigour, and can take most of the credit for the fact that such dyed-in-the-wool critics of the LTA as John and David Lloyd are suddenly saying nice things about the organisation, and indeed offering their services. Hell, even Pat Cash might yet get on-side. The former Wimbledon champion, who spends six months of the year in London, was scathing when I last met him about the standard of coaching in this country.

When I raise Cash's condemnation, Felgate is downright contemptuous.

"I just wonder what his coaching credentials are," he says. "And I'm not so sure he's been all around the country to see what's happening. We have Tito Vasquez, who worked with David Nalbandian; we have Carl Maes, who coached Kim Clijsters; we have myself; we have Mark Petchey, who's worked with two top-30 girls. His argument is based on a total lack of knowledge."

None the less, the suspicion remains that Big Ben will stop and the ravens will leave the Tower of London before Britain produces a man and woman capable of winning a Grand Slam event in the same year.

For Felgate, though, this is glib, defeatist talk. "I have a favourite dinner party line," he says. "If there's someone there who's a lawyer, say, and he's being disparaging about a British tennis player who's ranked 160 in the world, I say: "Excuse me, are you one of the 160 best lawyers in England?" He says: "Oh, I don't know about that." And I say: "What about the world?"

It is a slightly disingenuous argument and Felgate knows it, but it can only be good for tennis to have someone so feisty fighting its corner. And it's not as if he is blind to the sport's deficiencies in this country. On the contrary, he is probably more aware of them than anyone.

"But I think in the past the LTA has put too much emphasis on its own responsibility to produce players. Is it the FA's job to produce footballers, the RFU's to produce rugby players? No. They're produced by schools and clubs. But come Wimbledon time, the perception is always that the LTA has failed again. We haven't failed. We're making a big effort to change the club culture in the long-term, even if the message hasn't yet got through to some clubs."

The kind of clubs where juniors are prevented from playing until after 3pm at weekends? "Exactly." Does he know what the attitude to juniors is like at Queen's, where the International Training Centre is located? "No, I don't." I don't bother telling him the story Jeremy Bates once told me, that as a promising junior he was once moved off a court at Queen's by a member playing on the adjacent court because his footsteps were too noisy. Maybe things have changed since then.

I do tell him, however, that I recently heard the alarming statistic that there are more indoor courts in Stockholm than there are in the whole of Britain.

He smiles. "That's not what's stopping us achieving. We spend too long talking about the lack of this or that, making excuses. We actually have some pretty good facilities in Britain. Are we behind other countries? Absolutely. It's been the same in every sport, in football, cricket and rugby, but they're turning it round and so are we.

"The problem is that we think we're a sporting nation and we're not. Go to Australia, America. They're sporting nations. There, it's 'gee, you play professional tennis!' Here, it's 'what are you going to do when you quit?' They embrace their sportsmen, we don't. The foreign players who come here laugh about it. It's staggering."

There would, of course, be a revolution in British attitudes to tennis if only Henman could win Wimbledon, in the same way that club and school rugby is certain to benefit from the Jonny Wilkinson factor. I know it's massively unfair to place such a burden on Henman's shoulders; all the same, does Felgate, who knows Henman's game better than anybody, think he can still pull it off?

"Yes I do. Absolutely, he can. He has the desire, and his game is so suited to grass. I could talk to you for hours about Tim, and about this idea that he has underachieved. In fact he has overachieved. Do we talk about people who make the England football team as having failed?

"Tim has been in the top 11 in the world for four of the last five years. If he was a footballer he would have made a world XI for four of the last five years. Is that failure? I don't think so. His record at Wimbledon is phenomenal. Four semis, two quarters, one last 16. Apart from the likes of Sampras and Agassi, it is second to none."

Henman was ranked 22 in the world on the day Felgate started this job. He knows this because there is a chart in his office with the rankings on that day of Britain's top 10 men and top 10 women. Behind Henman was Rusedski at 70, and then Arvind Parmar at 187. The 10th ranked man was 490th in the world, while the top three women - Anne Keothavong, Elena Baltacha and Jane O'Donohue, were 160, 171 and 187.

It is Felgate's sworn objective to improve these numbers. "In the short term," he says, "I would like to see the 10th-ranked man at 300. We're not going to put fortunes into him but we can maximise his potential."

With that in his sights, he has already made significant changes within the LTA, "moving some people around and some out" as he euphemistically puts it. One of those moved out was Roger Taylor, replaced as the Davis Cup captain by Jeremy Bates. It was by no means Felgate's decision alone, but it exemplified his intent to modernise. After all, Taylor, for all his quiet diligence, is associated with a bygone era.

Felgate's slightly prickly single-mindedness, meanwhile, rather puts me in mind of Woodward, which these days is as flattering a comparison as any coach can hope for. But his own declared admiration for Woodward, Sweetenham and Arsène Wenger is not enough; he wants to borrow their ideas.

It is Wenger, above all, whose methods he venerates, and his friendship with Liam Brady has enabled him, on occasion, to get a closer look.

"You look at his [Wenger's] emphasis on diet, on training, the way he does everything to the stopwatch, his great man-management skills. I read and see some of the things he did with the players there, his effect on their careers, what he did for Bould, Keown, Adams, Dixon. It proves that you can come in and change a culture. It has happened at Everton as well. I know they're struggling a bit at the moment, but two seasons ago they were terrible, relegation fodder. David Moyes has had the same players, more or less. What he has changed is the culture."

Like both Moyes and Wenger, although not Woodward, Felgate is dealing with professionals who have more natural ability than he did. Whether that is significant I don't know. Perhaps it intensifies the desire to help players reach their full potential, when you know that their potential is so much greater than yours was. Sir Alex Ferguson and Gérard Houllier come from the same stable, as does the golf coach David Leadbetter.

Not, though, that Felgate was any slouch as a tennis player. "I was in the top 300 in the world in singles, the top 100 in doubles. And to put that in perspective, there are 200 soccer players in the Premiership."

It is my turn to smile. There are moments when he is more doggedly defensive than his beloved Arsenal back four of old. It still irks him, I think, that his most high-profile match as a singles player was in the first round at Wimbledon in 1988, when he was comprehensively beaten on Court One by the top seed Ivan Lendl. "I would rather have played nobody and been in the second round," he says, bluntly. "And what I want at Wimbledon is to have British journalists scurrying around at the end of the first week, not knowing which Brit to cover."

Towards the end of the second week at Wimbledon, there still seems no prospect of British journalists covering anyone other than Henman, and possibly Rusedski. But Felgate insists that the culture is changing, and unhesitatingly identifies 16-year-old Andrew Murray as a top 100 player of the future, which is interesting, because he did not predict such heights for Henman when his protégé was around the same age.

"I started with Tim when he was 17 and had no idea he would be as good as he is, although about two years in I said, 'If we don't get this guy into the top 100, we will have failed'."

He continued as Henman's coach for just short of nine years. The decision to split, he says, was mutual, although I sense that it was slightly more mutual on Henman's part. "It wasn't easy, but we had both felt it coming."

Felgate then started coaching the Belgian, Xavier Malisse, and in that serendipitous way in which sport specialises, so often pitching coaches and managers against their former charges, Malisse promptly drew Henman in the US Open - and won. "I felt happiness for a second, but then acute sadness for Tim. It felt like betrayal. We'd been inseparable."

Still, they remained good mates, and Felgate's wife, Jan, continues as Henman's agent. Moreover, it was Henman who strongly encouraged the LTA to appoint Felgate as Hagelauer's successor. Wasn't that, I wonder, like encouraging someone to hand a friend a poisoned chalice? "No, I definitely don't look on it as a poisoned chalice."

With that, he shows me out of his office and into the International Training Centre's plush reception area, where a plaque proclaims that the building was opened in December 1992 by Fred Perry and Virginia Wade. It doesn't add that they are Britain's most recent male (1936) and female (1977) singles champions at Wimbledon, but it doesn't have to. Felgate doesn't need to be reminded of Britain's dismal tennis record; what he needs is encouragement as he seeks, with admirable vim, to turn that record on its head.

David Felgate the life and times

Born: 22 October 1963, in Essex.

1982: Felgate wins the Under-18 National Championships in both singles and doubles.

1983: He turns professional at the age of 20, winning five career doubles titles including one Tour title in Bordeaux in 1985.

1988: Makes his only Wimbledon singles appearance, losing in the first round to Ivan Lendl.

1989: Retires from full-time tennis and spends two years coaching in the USA.

1992: Becomes manager of Men's National Training for the Lawn Tennis Association. In April Felgate begins to coach a talented British teenager named Tim Henman after he wins the U-18 National Championships.

1996: Begins coaching Henman full-time. Henman goes on to win eight ATP titles, reaches the semi-finals of Wimbledon twice, and attains a career-high ranking of No 5 in the world.

1998: Becomes a member of the ATP Tour's European board of directors.

2001: Parts company with Henman and begins coaching Belgium's Xavier Melisse.

2003: Succeeds Patrice Hagelauer as the LTA's director of performance.

They say: "David has lots of experience and he's as dedicated as they come. He'd be as good for the role as any." Tim Henman on Felgate's suitability as the LTA's director of performance.

He says: "I am not saying we can turn these guys into world-beaters, but some should certainly have better rankings. You shouldn't be ranked 600 in the world and be playing Davis Cup. My first emphasis will be to get something out of these guys."