Draper clings to positives amid gloom

LTA chief remains upbeat about the future despite latest Davis Cup humiliation
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The Independent Online

In Roger Draper's first week as chief executive of the Lawn Tennis Association Britain lost to Serbia & Montenegro in a Davis Cup tie in Glasgow. Three years on, the LTA having since spent millions on recruiting some of the world's leading coaches and support staff, the national team were defeated at the same Braehead Arena, this time losing 4-1 to Ukraine.

While the emerging Novak Djokovic helped to inflict the wounds in 2006, Ukraine's best player over the last three days was Sergiy Stakhovsky, the world No 125. His three team-mates were all ranked outside the top 200. Britain were always facing a struggle without Andy Murray, who pulled out last week with a virus, but the emphatic nature of this defeat will have disappointed the most pessimistic of pessimists.

The tie was lost on Saturday, when Stakhovsky and Sergei Bubka beat Ross Hutchins and Colin Fleming in a tight five-set doubles to establish an unassailable lead. In yesterday's dead rubbers Josh Goodall, the world No 192, lost his second singles match when he was beaten 7-6, 6-3 by Ivan Sergeyev, the world No 398, while Chris Eaton at last secured a point for John Lloyd's team by beating Illya Marchenko 6-3, 4-6, 7-6.

Draper, nevertheless, was looking on the bright side. ''While it's terrible to lose, in another sense I feel more positive than ever before about making British tennis successful,'' he said.

A key reason for Draper's optimism is a new system of support for the country's elite competitors. Thirty-six players, including 15 juniors, have been given performance-related ''Team Aegon'' contracts. Aegon, a financial services company, last year signed a £25m sponsorship deal with the LTA.

Anne Keothavong, the country's top-ranked woman, and Laura Robson, the Wimbledon junior champion, both receive the equivalent of £48,000 to provide them with personal coaches, while other senior players receive £24,000 each and the juniors £16,000. They all have a £12,000 travel budget. Murray, supported in other ways by the LTA, is not on the programme.

Steve Martens, the LTA's player director, explained that the LTA now agrees on a specific annual set of targets for each player. If they are not met, the funding can be reduced or cut completely.

''In the past you would automatically get support as a top player, but now we are clearly linking it to a contract that is not only focusing on a player's ranking progress but also their progress as a player,'' Martens said.

Draper is confident there will soon be a steady flow of promising juniors into the senior game, while Martens believes that the improved support systems for the current elite players will see their standards rise.

The leading British women have made real progress in the last year, though there is little sign yet of similar improvement among the men. It is 12 years since a British player other than Murray, Tim Henman or Greg Rusedski won a live Davis Cup singles rubber.

As a result of their latest defeat Britain face a play-off in September at home to Poland, the losers to be relegated to Group Two of the Europe Africa Zone, which includes Georgia, Lithuania, Monaco and Ireland. Britain last played at that level 13 years ago.

Poland could prove tough opposition. In Marcin Matkowski and Mariusz Fyrstenberg they have one of the world's leading doubles pairs, while their best singles players, Lukasz Kubot (world No 182) and Dawid Olejniczak (No 233), have similar rankings to Goodall, the British No 2. As has become the norm, the presence or otherwise of Murray will be crucial to the home team's chances.