Hagelaueron mission to defeat old values

Gallic flair of LTA's performance director has hit obstacles in bid to find young talent.
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The Independent Online

While directing his Lawn Tennis Association coaching staff along Britain's highways in search of young tennis talent in the counties, Patrice Hagelauer could do worse than relate the story of how Yannick Noah was discovered in Africa.

While directing his Lawn Tennis Association coaching staff along Britain's highways in search of young tennis talent in the counties, Patrice Hagelauer could do worse than relate the story of how Yannick Noah was discovered in Africa.

During a visit to Yaoundé, Cameroon, Arthur Ashe, the 1975 Wimbledon champion, randomly chose to stroll down one path rather than another and recognised raw ability in the skinny young Noah, who was playing tennis with his father. Ashe gave the boy one of his rackets and recommended him to the French Tennis Federation for coaching.

Noah, who was coached by Hagelauer for the best part of his career, won the French Open in 1983 and later captained the national team to triumph in the Davis Cup. Ashe may have sensed that the athletic Noah would relish a challenge. His father, Zacharie, was a zealous tackler who had played right-back for Sedan, where his wife, Marie-Claire, had a teaching job. Zacharie's football career was ended by a knee injury, not long after he won a French Cup winners' medal in 1961, and the family returned to Yaoundé when Yannick was three years old.

"I believe that when you are a kid and you have to walk five miles every morning to go to school and you have to walk five miles back, and you don't have a comfortable car, it definitely helps," Noah said. "You run in your bare feet, and you train in your bare feet, and you play in your bare feet."

Not even the poorest junior in Britain is expected to do that (more's the pity, some might say); indeed, Hagelauer's initial frustration with the general lack of time and interest many clubs here devote to young players prompted him to threaten to leave if their attitude did not improve.

Hagelauer, 51, was appointed as the Lawn Tennis Association's performance director six months ago, in the hope that the former head coach of the French Federation would, to quote the LTA's president, Sir Geoffrey Cass, "bring some panache and Gallic flair" - Arsÿne Wenger with top-spin.

Although promised a free hand, there is a danger that Hagelauer may find himself haggling with the status quo, which would tend to defeat the object of introducing an outsider with a proven track record.

No stranger to bureaucracy, Hagelauer also has personal experience of dealing with ego and eccentricity, particular in relation to the most celebrated French players in his charge, Noah and Henri Leconte.

"When Noah was the French No 1 and Leconte started challenging Noah, they were not getting along well," recounted Alain Deflassieux, of L'Equipe.

"Leconte was jealous, and Noah was treating Leconte as an idiot. Hagelauer succeeded in getting the two guys together. He said: 'You are both adults and you are both great players, and what is happening now is ridiculous'."

A former LTA official, anxious to avoid complacency at HQ after the advent of Greg Rusedski and Tim Henman, privately described the pair as "a foreigner and an accident".

The Canadian-born Rusedski, the catalyst of the two-man evolution, sympathises with Hagelauer's misgivings about the apathy within some of the clubs. "That's where we have to change if we really want to make progress," Rusedski said. "It might not be pleasant for some of the people who are members, but the kids should have the chance to go on there any time. And if they show a keen interest and show some ability, there should be coaches looking around and spotting these kids and saying: 'Why don't you come back? We've got this programme, free of charge, come on in and try it'."

Rusedski was raised in Montreal. "You could find somewhere to play tennis," he said. "It was a little bit expensive, but my father used to play the game, so that's how I really got started. There were about 20 indoor courts within a 50-mile radius. There were also small outdoor courts where you could play socially. It was a very sociable game, and kids could get courts and have group lessons. They would have five or 10 kids on a court, and anybody who showed potential would go from this step to that. I was fortunate to have the right coaches and the right people around me.

"It can be a very expensive thing to get going. My parents made a lot of sacrifices for me, and I'm sure Tim's did for him as well. The finances are there from the budget the LTA gets every single year from Wimbledon to make that feeling of accessibility for the kids that don't have the opportunity. Give it a go. It doesn't matter what class you come from. I don't care whether you're upper, middle, or lower, if you're a good tennis player, just play."

The old argument that British tennis lacked role models to inspire future players no longer holds. "Tim and myself have been in the top 10 for two years," Rusedski said, "and the LTA needs to take advantage of that by having more kids who might not take up the game of tennis get the opportunity.

"Five, six, seven years down the road, there's no guarantee that myself and Tim will still be around. Maybe this year, another year - who knows? - one of us could get a serious injury, and one of us could be out. Hopefully, we'll be there for the five or seven years, but we've got to look at the seven or eight-year-olds right now and take them up, because right behind us at the moment, unfortunately, there's not as much as we'd like coming up.

"We need more people playing. I was talking to Patrice. He said they have 400,000 people in France, at junior level, playing tennis. We have 17,000. I mean, just look at the mathematics in the two equations. And the French always seem to have five or six good players in the top 100. They might not be top 10 players, all of them, but they're excellent players."

The LTA, having had more five-year plans than the former Soviet Union, will be aware that fostering talent is a long-term project. "We can't put too much pressure on Patrice," Rusedski said. "It's going to take him at least a year just to get the full picture of what's happening."

By now, Hagelauer probably has a good idea what has not been happening.

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