Get-tough policy culls the home 'losers'
Monday 21 June 2004
Beyond Tim Henman - and at a generous push, Greg Rusedski - lies a familiar dearth of British hopefuls at Wimbledon. A suitable collective noun for them might be "an exit".
As the old joke goes: Why won't every Briton be knocked out on day one? Answer: there might be a rain delay.
It has been the same story for years. Aside from Henman and Rusedski, realistic home hopes of even a semi-finalist, in either the men's or women's singles, have been nil for two decades.
The Lawn Tennis Association has taken an annual pasting for failing to develop talent for most of that period. It has often been deserved. As one former high-ranking LTA official said: "The LTA thought they'd cracked it when Tim and Greg came through. What they'd really got was a foreigner and an accident."
The rise of that duo did not represent the true position of the game in Britain. Rusedski was a Canadian import. Henman's career was largely self-built. Neither was a product of "the system". Indeed, if there was a system at all, it often seemed intent on producing initiatives for their own sake instead of a meaningful framework, based on competitive values, which would actually produce players.
An embarrassment of riches from the All England Club's annual surplus from The Championships only served to make failure more ridiculous. How many other governing bodies would kill for a yearly windfall of up to £30m? How many would have the chutzpah, year after year, to claim they were about to turn a corner despite a track record of running into walls?
Set against this backdrop, the LTA's recent decision not to nominate Ian Flanagan for a Wimbledon wild card should be applauded. In future, it might even be seen as a turning point for British game.
A fortnight ago, 22-year-old Flanagan was a total unknown ranked No 866 in the world. He then eliminated Mark Philippoussis, last year's Wimbledon runner-up, from the Stella Artois Championships at Queen's Club and he was an overnight hero. A second win followed when he beat Romania's Victor Hanescu before the form book reasserted itself and he crashed out to Sebastien Grosjean.
Naturally the cry went up that he should obtain a Wimbledon wild card - the LTA makes nominations and the All England Club usually follows the advice. Unusually, the LTA ignored the clamour and said no. They said that if Flanagan wanted to play singles in SW19, he could chance his luck in a wild card play-off. He declined and subsequently also missed out via Roehampton qualifying. He lost there in the first round a week ago on a day of British performances described as "rubbish" by Mark Petchey, the LTA's men's national training manager.
The LTA's call over Flanagan's wild card nomination was sound, edging the LTA closer to credibility in its claims that it is finally on the right track. The logic behind it was that having a flash in the pan, albeit one as dazzling as beating Philippoussis in an important grass-court event, should not on its own suffice be enough to gain a freebie entry to Wimbledon.
From now on, players need to earn their place on the big stage. Year-round improvement, not two days' headlines, is the way forward. New LTA guidelines, in force for the first time this year, dictate what level of achievement (measured by rankings) is and is not good enough. By those criteria, Flanagan missed out.
The same "tough love" approach is in force in British swimming, which is run by an the Australian taskmaster, Bill Sweetenham. Just as Sweetenham's regime has received brickbats - most notably for setting tough Olympic qualifying standards that saw Mark Foster controversially miss the Athens cut - so too has the LTA.
But just as British swimming is in its rudest health for a generation, so British tennis should see the payback, albeit not immediately.
Achieving results in the serious business of competitive sport takes time. The LTA is only now laying the foundations. By denying the nation one potential feel-good story (Flanagan making unlikely progress at Wimbledon), it has signalled something far more important: the end of the culture of dependency. In the long-term that can only benefit upcoming players, Flanagan included.
Under the LTA's new rules, the LTA will only nominate British players for wild cards if a player is inside the world's top 250 (women) or top 300 (men). Players below those levels might be considered if aged under-19 (women) or under-20 (men), or if they have won qualifying events. No player will receive more than three "direct" wild cards in their lifetime.
The upshot this year is that there are six British women and seven British men (including Rusedski) with singles wild cards. The only other home hopes are Henman (by right) and Jamie Delgado, who came through qualifying.
With the obvious rider that all the wild cards, on rankings, are expected to lose in the first round, there may yet be the odd plucky battler. Elena Baltacha is a born fighter and could frighten Spain's Marta Marrero, the world No 62, as long as she is not still feeling the effects of a serious, long-term liver problem.
Amanda Janes, the British No 2 and world No 235, will take heart from winning a match in Eastbourne last week, although her task against the 11th seed, Ai Sugiyama, is not easy. Jane O'Donoghue is capable of beating America's Lindsay Lee-Waters, ranked 150 places higher at No 90 in the world, but will need to show her very best to do it.
Katie O'Brien, who will also sit three "A" level papers this week, will at least gain big-stage experience, if not a win, against Maria Sanchez Lorenzo. Anne Keothavong and Emily Webley-Smith complete the home women's contingent.
None of the men have easy draws, but the toughest has fallen to Alex Bogdanovic, who faces the defending champion Roger Federer today. A swift but plucky exit is expected. A win would rank as the biggest shock in the tournament's history. That really would mark a new era.
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