Felgate continues tireless search for a diamond to polish
Sunday 04 July 2004
David Felgate knows better than most what it takes for an Englishman to have an impact at Wimbledon. For nine years, he coached Tim Henman to five quarter-finals and two semis, helping one individual make the most of his extraordinary talents. Today, as the Lawn Tennis Association's new performance director, Felgate is trying to repeat the feat "on a much wider scale".
It seems an improbable challenge, not least because so many have failed before him, but the 40-year-old is confident that he can reverse the trend of continuous under-achievement. If his message sounds familiar, his methods are far more aggressive than in the past. Out go the excuses about the weather and the pleas to snooty clubs to open their doors; in come performance-related incentives and a focus on the country's more talented players.
"We have to stop looking around for things to blame all the time," Felgate says following yet another poor Championships for the British contingent. "The reason why only one of our players [Henman] has made an impact at Wimbledon this year is because the rest of them weren't good enough.
"People ask me whether we shouldn't do better here, but I say our men and women got as far as their rankings said they would."
Perhaps so, but should Britain not possess several top 100 players by now? The funding, some £29m per year, is in line with that of many other European nations, and yet the results are incomparable. "We need to do better," acknowledges Felgate, who replaced Patrice Hagelauer 15 months ago, "but I actually think that results are already improving. The problem is that our breakthroughs are at the younger age-groups so nobody is really noticing.
"For example, there is a kid called Josh Goodall who has climbed 500 places in the rankings these last 12 months. I know the hard work we have put in at the LTA to make that happen."
Felgate adds: "Equally, I appreciate that one or two good stories are not enough. We need to do more and, most importantly, we have to make sure that the kids who are starting to do well today will continue to develop and make it as professionals tomorrow."
And herein lies the crux of the tennis conundrum on these shores. Britain's juniors often do well but rarely progress once they join the full ATP Tour. Jamie Delgado and Alex Bogdanovic are just two of the players who made an impact in their teenage years before fading away once they turned professional. "And conversely," Felgate says, "someone like Henman, who lost at Wimbledon Juniors in the first round, has gone on to great things. There is no set pattern, but what is true is that something goes wrong when most of our players take the step up.
"But I have to say that the same is true in most countries around the world. Where we differ is that we often don't have the numbers to ensure that a healthy handful of our juniors will make the breakthrough, and that's what we are really focusing on at the LTA. It's about putting numbers in the draw, because the law of averages tells you that the more players are involved the better the chance one of them will progress."
So where is Felgate hoping to unearth the future stars? "Am I looking for the next Tim Henman?" he asks. "No, because I know it doesn't work like that. Tim's from a comfortable background but he's got a bigger heart than kids who might have more to prove. There are no rules. You can't set out to find lots of prototypes; you just have to try to root out the next great individuals. I don't care whether they come from within the LTA or without. If they have the talent and they're British, then I will give them the necessary support. But it's up to the players to work hard all year around."
So far as players and fans are concerned, the perennial problem with Wimbledon is that it brings tennis into far too sharp a focus for a mere fortnight. "For two weeks per year," Felgate says, "there is a huge and abnormal inter-est in tennis, so everything gets blown out of all proportion. If four of our girls, all of whom were handed wild cards, get through the first round [as was the case this year], everyone goes mad. Then they all lose their next matches to girls ranked much higher than them and British tennis is in crisis again. It's a nonsense."
The same unbalanced coverage applies annually to Henman, who was again a national hero until Wednesday afternoon but has been widely portrayed as a wimp and a choker ever since.
"It's just ridiculous," Felgate says, "because the truth is that he has almost always over-achieved. I'll tell you what, if in the next 10 years the LTA could help develop five men and five women of Tim's calibre, I would be more than satisfied."
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