Glorious failure: British tennis will never learn

John Lloyd: The public are being misled by hype and propaganda as the cracks in the system are papered over again
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The Independent Online

The newspapers, television screens and airwaves have been full these past few days of the heroics of Barry Cowan. True Brit, Great Brit, that sort of stuff. Only in this country, it seems, do we make heroes out of losers. We even have a phrase for it: the Dunkirk spirit.

I applaud Barry for the way he played against Pete Sampras in the second round. His game went up about four levels in that match, and all credit to him for that. He did brilliantly on the night. But what we forget every Wimbledon is that there are always one or two of the lesser British players who do well. Remember Andrew Castle against Mats Wilander? And Chris Bailey against Goran Ivanisevic? Like Barry, they played wonderfully but lost, and have gone on to make decent TV careers subsequently. Yet we need to remember several things.

First, the British men and women are competing on a surface that is a great equaliser, and in most cases they are only there because of the wild cards they have been awarded, which get them into pre-Wimbledon tournaments like Queen's, Nottingham, Birmingham and Eastbourne. So they are getting freebies. Whenever they get a result, whether it's against a clay-court expert 30 places above them in the rankings, or whether it's one of those "great losses", everything gets blown out of proportion and they almost become stars overnight. Then it all gets forgotten until the following year.

I don't have a problem with Barry milking the occasion for all he's worth, because he is a very hard worker and has tried his butt off. But the fact remains that he is still 265 in the world. If the Sampras match doesn't get him to the next level, something is wrong. Now he has to get out of the rut of life on the Challenger circuit and win on a court where people can hit the ball over the net more than five times. He can't come back next year and ask for a wild card into Wimbledon for the sixth straight year. End of story.

Arvind Parmar is another example. He wins a match against the Brazilian Andre Sa, someone who got into the tournament as a lucky loser in the qualifying anyway, and is "heroic". True, the manner in which he won, coming back from cramp in five sets, was great. But he should have beaten Sa easily to stand up all that talk about progress we are hearing. It was being hyped as some great victory, for heaven's sake. We need to get things in perspective.

This is the world's major championship, we have all these wild cards given to British players, this is the most helpful surface for our players and yet once again everybody is out by the first Thursday apart from Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski.

Yet we are expected to believe British tennis is on the way back. The public are being fooled by this, misled by media hype and the propaganda of the Lawn Tennis Association, who milk these two weeks to paper over the cracks in their system. It's not the individuals. Good luck to the guys and the girls. What I find repugnant is the propaganda surrounding it all.

Women's tennis in Britain is in the worst state it has ever been in, yet the LTA are asking for more time to get things right. How much longer will this go on? Five, 10, 15 years? The LTA's chief executive, John Crowther, is saying he is hopeful of seeing more youngsters like Elena Baltacha and Anne Keothavong soon. "If in 10 years' time the results are not a lot better you can jump down my throat," was his comment.

But he has already been in the job four-and-a-half years, and he has just awarded himself another 10 years. That's a 15-year guarantee of employment. We would all like a job like that. If the LTA are in business, which they are supposed to be, you can't be serious about a 15-year plan. We've already had more than 20 years of this and it's not working. The LTA have been handed Wimbledon's mounting profits year after year, something like £300m since 1977. Where has that gone? Where all the results from all that money? Yet they want more time.

Alan Jones, the coach of Baltacha and Keothavong, is a nice enough bloke, yet he has given the girls a negative vibe by telling them they don't have as much talent as the Belgians, Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters. Even if it is true, don't tell your pupils that. Jones says the top 100 is the goal if our two girls reach their potential. What sort of goal is that? Tell them to reach for the stars.

It has got to the stage at Wimbledon where the British should not be given wild cards any more. Our emerging talent should be made to earn a place. If this was a hungry nation in terms of tennis I would agree with the wild-card system. But our players already get too many things given them on a plate by a rich LTA – coaches, training facilities, free travel. This is one more gift. Yet the standard remains depressingly poor.

Every year our low-ranked players make something like £15,000 out of wild cards into Wimbledon and other pre-Wimbledon events. If you are also being subsidised by the LTA you can exist on that, and that's what they are doing, just existing and not progressing. It doesn't help them or British tennis.

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