Growing champions at the double

Demands of Devonshire Park's County Week are helping to nurture the competitive instinct that will convert British talent into winners
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The Independent Online

Harry Sumner marked his County Week debut at Devonshire Park here by waving both hands in unison. "I think he's ambidextrous," giggled his mother, Claire Taylor, a left-handed Oxfordshire competitor who once had the honour of playing Martina Navratilova on Centre Court at Wimbledon. We shall see. Harry is only nine weeks old.

Navratilova once mused that she and Wayne Gretzky, the Canadian icon of ice hockey, would be able to produce a child of spectacular sporting potential. This called to mind the dancer Isadora Duncan's suggestion to Sir George Bernard Shaw that they should make a baby blessed with her looks and his intellect. Shaw declined, fearing the offspring might have his looks and Isadora's intellect.

Taylor, and her partner, Malcolm Sumner, an enthusiastic footballer and cricketer and social tennis player who works for a mobile phone company, have no such pretensions. In common with the rest of the tennis community, however, they are fascinated by the genetic possibilities of the infant boy due to be born to Steffi Graf and Andre Agassi in mid-December.

Can we look forward to a pigeon-toed prodigy with a booming forehand and a devastating service return scampering between change-overs as if playing against the clock? "Hopefully I'll be rather supportive of whatever the choices are," Agassi says, "but I've got to believe that if mom and dad are banging the ball around, the little fella might want to jump in." Taylor regards that as a certainty. "Look at Brooklyn Beckham," she said. "My parents were there last year when Man United won the championship and he was kicking a ball around. They said he was amazing, moving forward with perfect balance at two years old."

That is not so surprising. Britain has proved capable of extending a line of outstanding footballers, along with illustrious participants in most other sports, whether by hereditary influence or not. The nation's tennis is another matter, having lacked the inspiration of major champions since Virginia Wade won the Wimbledon women's singles title in 1977 and Fred Perry ended his three-year reign as the men's champion in 1936.

The Lawn Tennis Association's Inter-County Cup, currently being staged at 13 different venues around the country and involving 800 players, may not produce long-term winners on the international stage. But it ought to serve as a model for the game at grass-roots level rather than be dismissed as an anachronism. Patrice Hagelauer, the LTA's performance director, is almost hoarse from urging the clubs to organise junior programmes based on sound tuition and competitive tennis. The idea is simple enough: a numbers game. The more young people who play – and play to win – the wider the selection of potential talent to be groomed in various regional squad systems.

While Hagelauer is not enamoured of tournaments restricted to doubles, as is County Week, with separate events for men and women, few observers could fail to be impressed by the spirit of the competitors, who play three matches per day over five days.

Pete Russell, a 35 year old who plays for Devon, is a national tennis coach based at the centre of excellence in Bath. "I still play football, but I wouldn't train just to have a kick-about if I didn't play a competitive match at the weekends," he says. "Juniors at tennis clubs need to be put in a competitive environment so they can get used to it. If the clubs develop a broad base of competitiveness, the youngsters will want to go on to play for the county, they will want to play for the region, they will want to play representative tennis to as high a level as they can. You can gauge it to a certain extent here. Most of the people who come here have grown up playing representative matches."

Among them is Russell's wife, Melissa, 27, a Leicestershire player who works in PR and marketing. "It's a week's holiday, and you know you're going to hurt after every single day," she said. "But you wouldn't miss it for the world. I think it's the best tournament that we we have. It's so intensive. You do see how many people go to the physio. I think a few of us are getting a bit too old for this."

The Russells have been married for two and a half years. "I'm not pregnant," Melissa emphasised, concerned, perhaps, that your correspondent was desperately seeking Britain's answer to Graf and Agassi. "We just haven't had children yet," she added. "I'm sure we will in future."

Harry Sumner was back in his pram at the courtside with his father, while Claire Taylor did her best to fend off Surrey. Oxfordshire's women have waited 106 years to compete in Group 1 at County Week and are determined not to lose their place in the premier division without a fight. Taylor was 19 when a wild card entitled her to play Navratilova in the first round at Wimbledon in 1994, the seven-time champion's last visit as a singles player. Navratilova won, 6-2, 6-3. "I was two-love down in the second set and won three games on the bounce, and then she stepped up a little bit," Taylor recalled. "That was it, really. It was useless. I wanted to beat her, but I wanted her to win Wimbledon, you see, because it was her last one. So I was really stuck. I didn't know what to do. Martina was very nice. She walked up to my parents afterwards and said what a delight it was play someone who loved the game so much. Last time I saw her she still remembered who I was and said hello."

Taylor's playing career has been restricted since she injured an elbow in February last year, and she now coaches. "I'm hoping to work with the county to get some more players through. Angela Billingham, our captain, brought me in when I was 13 and took me down to Frinton. The first week I played one match, on the Friday. The rest of the week I was the gofer, looking after everyone else. But it's amazing. It's a team thing. Youngsters can't have it any better than coming through this."

Who knows? Maybe Harry will enhance Devonshire Park's tradition as a breeding ground for tennis.

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