'If we don't get the best out of these girls, then we'll have to ask ourselves why'

While Belgium had two French Open semi-finalists, Britain pray one at Surbiton is a good sign
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Having spent much of the past week drunk with joy, Elena Baltacha's merry run at Surbiton was ended by a strong Brandi. The 17-year-old Brit-on's career-best progress to the semi-final, where she was beaten by Kristina Brandi of the United States, has rightly generated publicity and praise, but events across the Channel serve as a sobering reminder that any talk of the rebirth of British women's tennis is decidedly premature.

Belgium ­ with a population of just 10 million, no more than 6,000 courts, and an annual tennis budget of £500,000 ­ provided the French Open with two semi-finalists, Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters, who played Jennifer Capriati in the final yesterday. Despite Baltacha's heroics, Britain ­ 56m inhabitants, 36,000 courts, and £31m to spend on the game each year ­ are still way short of producing a Grand Slam finalist. It says much that Baltacha alone progressed beyond the second round of what is, after all, only a Challenger event (for players ranked between 100 and 250 in the world).

While he has been encouraged by the recent progress of the younger players, and in particular the bubbly Baltacha, the Lawn Tennis Association's women's national training manager, Keith Wooldridge, is the first to admit that his more senior protégées have struggled to make the grade. "It's been a tough year for the older girls," he says. "They've all retained their rankings but none of them have pushed on from where they were 12 months ago. Louise [Latimer] got to about 120 in the world by playing Challengers. This year she's been in Tour events and, if we're being fair, she's struggled. She had to take the step up, but it's been a tough time. At least she's back on grass now, and we're hopeful this will be a good summer for her."

Latimer is not the only player to have failed to make the grade. Julie Pullin, Lorna Woodroffe and Lucie Ahl are the latest names to be added to Britain's long list of good, but not world-class, players. As Wooldridge candidly states: "It might be that they've done well to get to the level they're at."

The girls themselves cannot be blamed. For years, British tennis suffered from a lack of leadership. A few ­ Virginia Wade, Annabel Croft and Jo Durie ­ made inroads, but their relative successes were despite, not thanks to, the system.

Players from Latimer's generation are the products of a youth development programme which was under- financed and misguided. "The emphasis used to be on spotting talented players when they were very young, then taking them out of their local clubs and putting them into a centre of excellence," Wooldridge explains. "This was counter-productive on two fronts. Firstly, it tore youngsters away from their natural environment and, secondly, it weakened the club. Had girls like Louise been part of our current regime, they might have made it."

The latest scheme is indeed very different. It is also producing eye-catching results. Masterminded by Wooldridge, ably assisted by experienced coaches such as Durie and Alan Jones, and encouraged by the LTA's French performance director, Patrice Hagelauer, the four-year plan is starting to bear its first fruits. Baltacha, who is the daughter of the Russian international footballer Sergei, has been the star of Surbiton, but others are also showing signs of progress. Anne Keothavong, the daughter of Laotian refugees, who was practising on council courts in Hackney until she was spotted and given help by the LTA, as well as Alice Barnes, Hannah Collin and Jane O'Donoghue, are just some of the new generation of female British players with the potential to make inroads on the Tour.

"We have a lot of hope for these girls," Wooldridge says. "They're getting the best the LTA have got: the coaches are starting with them early, the fitness training is top quality and the overall preparation is more thorough than ever before. To be honest, if we don't get the best out of these players, then we'll have to ask ourselves why. If, in two years, we haven't been able to get these girls through, I'd say it's time to give someone else a go."

In the short term at least, Baltacha has put a much-needed smile back on the faces of the women's coaching staff. Athletic, composed, and willing to learn from her mistakes, she would appear to have the potential to compete on the Tour. "I enjoyed the week," Baltacha says. "I feel like I've learnt a lot about myself and I now have a better understanding of what I need to do to become a better player. I'm very encouraged."

Before her 46-minute defeat at the hands of the experienced Brandi, who is 41st in the world, Baltacha, who was ranked 359 but is now likely to move into the top 300 for the first time, proved to be a fierce competitor. Her quarter-final win over the world's 68th best player, Jennifer Hopkins, was her finest success to date. It was also, Wooldridge says, "a mature performance in which Bali [her nickname] showed the sort of mental resilience that has been sorely lacking in our players in the past".

Repeated failure has been difficult to accept for someone like Wooldridge, who is so clearly enthusiastic about the game. The 57-year-old admits that, on weeks like this when the two Belgians took the French Open by storm, he is left in no doubt why Britain continue to struggle. "I think the sudden success of those two is a one-off," he says, "but what is not a fluke is the fact that Belgium have a wide pool of players slowly coming through. There are large numbers of girls competing with each other. That's where we're still so weak. If you go to junior tournaments in this country, you'll see how poor the standards are. This means that any good players don't have other girls to compete with and are, ultimately, being held back."

The problem has been much the same with the men, but Wooldridge is confident that the rebuilding programme which Hagelauer has undertaken, with schemes such as Future Tennis and Club Vision, will generate the numbers which are needed if Britain are to stand any chance of producing a Grand Slam winner.

"Patrice is gradually raising the standards at local clubs," he says, "so that kids can stay put and continue their development in familiar surroundings. Once we have a solid base in place, hopefully we can take the next step, which is to create a production line of tough, competitive tennis players. Players like Elena Baltacha."

Comments