'Force the clubs to open their doors to the kids'

Britain will never find another Henman unless it heeds the warning of Patrice Hagelauer. Alex Hayes talks to him
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The Independent Online

"The one thing I'd change is that I'd like other British players to be competing at a high level. That's where Sebastien Grosjean is a good example. He's one of eight or 10 Frenchmen in the top 50 or 100, which is really good for competition but also for deflecting some of the attention away from him."

Tim Henman's cry for help, following his four-set defeat by Grosjean in the last eight on Thursday, was as heartfelt as it was damning. Heartfelt because the British No 1 would genuinely like to have quality home-grown players around him to keep him motivated for a few more years, and damning because it is British tennis that is in far more desperate need of a new generation of stars.

Henman may never win Wimbledon, but at least his place in the history of the grass-court game, not to mention his financial future, are secure. The same may not be true of British tennis, though, as the sport continues to struggle to produce top-quality athletes. Picking faults in the Henman game and psyche remains an easy task for the thousands of armchair critics, but finding ways of producing large numbers of equally talented players requires more than just words.

Patrice Hagelauer should know. As the Lawn Tennis Association's technical director, he spent four years banging his head against the rigid British infrastructure, trying to put in place the system that should, in time, deliver the quantity of players Britain crave. "There were times when it was really tough for me to do the job," reveals the Frenchman, who has now returned to his native France to become Davis Cup captain, "because too many people were full of opinions all the time. It always amazed me how these so-called experts who have never done a day's professional coaching in their lives could criticise the lack of progress we were making under my stewardship.

"You simply don't get results overnight. That's cloud-cuckoo-land stuff. The turnaround will take at least six or seven more years, and even then it will just be the beginning. The truth is that Tim will be long gone by the time there are lots of top British players."

Year after year, the second Sunday of Wimbledon is one of the most depressing 24 hours in the British sporting calendar. Forget the fact that the rest of the world celebrates it as men's final day, most Britons view it as realisation day. That is, realisation that a player from these shores may never win this prestigious tournament again.

"It's something that Britain needs to accept at the moment," Hagelauer says. "It's a fact that, in the current climate, I can't see a British winner emerging. That's not to say that things will never change, but British tennis needs to take a long, hard look at itself first. If you are not aware of your faults and weaknesses, how can you ever put things right and improve?"

Despite his protestations to the contrary, many feel that the blame lies with the LTA and their poor redistribution of the cash they earn from the Wimbledon fortnight. Depending on who you listen to, or indeed believe, the powers that be are squandering large portions of the £30m pot they touch. "Rubbish," Hagelauer interrupts. "It really angers me when I read nonsense like that because it totally undermines the wonderful job so many dedicated people are doing at the LTA and at a small number of clubs around the country.

"Let's get one thing clear: the LTA put over half the £30m they make back in the redevelopment of courts and clubs around the country. That proves that a lot of money goes into the sport. Unfortunately, it is only in the last two years that the LTA decided to put stringent rules on their investments. The proviso today is that they will only put money in clubs that give kids the chance to use their facilities. That's the right policy, and now it just needs time."

Hagelauer made progress during his four years, but the trouble is that few of the club players who so bemoan Henman's yearly exit in SW19 are prepared to talk about the root causes for the continuing failure of British tennis. It is much less demanding to use Henman as a template for British flaws, rather than applaud him for his continuous overachieving. As Hagelauer puts it: "The energy wasted every year by these club players on shooting down Tim would be much better used forcing clubs to open their doors to kids who are keen to play the game." It remains one of the most revealing statistics that France, despite having roughly the same population as Britain, possesses 9,000 tennis clubs to our 2,000. More tellingly, more than 1,000 of their clubs provide coaching for children. In Britain, there are fewer than 150.

"There is no secret," Hagelauer explains. "As long as the clubs refuse to budge, then Britain will never, ever produce a generation of top players. Of course, there might be another Tim, but to get a bunch coming through together, you can't rely solely on luck. You have to provide kids with opportunity, but also top-quality facilities and coaches.

"Once those basics are in place, Tim's wish of having lots of fellow Brits in the top 100 might have a chance of coming true. Quantity eventually brings quality. It's a bit like the Lottery: the more tickets you buy, the more chance you have of winning."

Hagelauer, who introduced a range of schemes such as mini-tennis to help transform stuffy and snobbish attitudes, adds: "But it's going to take a lot of time. I know people want instant results, but the truth is that you have to walk before you can run. Of course, every country wants to have lots of stars, but it won't happen just because someone suddenly clicks his fingers. In France, for example, it took us more than 15 years just to get the basics up and running properly. The results you see now are down to all the hard work and patience of the 1970s and early 1980s."

Patience and British sport? What next, a home-grown Wimbledon champion?