Judgement day for fallen Brit pack
After so many early exits, Paul Newman asks why the home hopefuls fail to make an impact on the world stage
Thursday 25 June 2009
Players come and go, as do Lawn Tennis Association executives and their coaching programmes, but there is one part of Wimbledon that is as traditional as white playing kit and Robinsons Barley Water. By the first Wednesday or Thursday – maybe even the Friday in a good year or, more probably, if it has been raining – it is time for The Great British Inquest.
The 2009 version was held yesterday morning as three senior LTA men attended a media briefing 24 hours after a day that had threatened to end in Britain's worst Wimbledon performance in 40 years. Until Elena Baltacha beat Alona Bondarenko, the world No 33, late on Tuesday evening, only one British player, Andy Murray, was through to the second round. Since the start of the Open era, at least two Britons have always cleared the first hurdle.
The results, nevertheless, were no more than a reflection of the country's status in the world game. Murray and Anne Keothavong, the only Britons who did not need wild cards because they have a high-enough world ranking, were the only two playing lower-ranked opponents. Of the wild-card recipients, Alex Bogdanovic, the British No 3, received his eighth here and has yet to win a match. The LTA will not be recommending that he receives another. While Keothavong, the world No 51, might have expected to beat Austria's Patricia Mayr, the world No 80, the results of all the other Britons – except Baltacha – went according to form. Paul Annacone, the head coach of men's tennis at the LTA, said the draw had been particularly tough on the British men. "I thought someone was playing a cruel practical joke when I saw it," he said.
Steve Martens, the LTA's player director, said: "It was a disappointing day for all of us, but I think it was an accurate portrayal of where our top players are in relation to their opponents yesterday. They all went out fighting hard and did as well as they could have done."
Nigel Sears, the LTA's head women's coach, said that British women's results had been disappointing throughout the grass-court season and had not reflected the progress the players have made in the last year. Keothavong is the first British woman to be ranked in the world's top 50 for 16 years, while Baltacha (world No 106), Katie O'Brien (108), Mel South (129) and Georgie Stoop (185) are at or near their highest in the rankings. Behind Murray the highest-ranked British men are Josh Goodall (188), Bogdanovic (191), James Ward (207) and Dan Evans (305).
"I would say there has been progress, even if it's not as clear as it has been with the women," Martens said. "If we look at the rankings compared with this time a year ago they have all gone up." Martens and Annacone defended the way the country's governing body spends the annual £25m-plus profits from Wimbledon on coaching programmes and support for players. The LTA has given 36 players, including 15 juniors, performance-related "Team Aegon" contracts. Aegon, a financial services company, signed a £25m sponsorship agreement with the LTA last year.
Keothavong and Laura Robson, the Wimbledon junior champion, both receive the equivalent of £48,000 to provide them with personal coaches, while other senior players receive £24,000 each and the juniors £16,000. They all have a £12,000 travel budget. Murray, who is supported in other ways by the LTA, is not on the programme.
Players are given an annual set of targets, covering both their ranking and specific areas like fitness, diet, mental preparation and technical aspects of their game. If the targets are not met, the funding can be reduced or cut completely.
Annacone said: "Six months ago Steven and I read the riot act to all the players. The older guys realise that in tennis the clock ticks faster. Boggo [Bogdanovic] knows the clock is ticking fast and as far as Wimbledon is concerned it may have stopped. It will be on his own merits now."
The LTA men were asked whether life was not made too easy for the British players, especially in comparison with those eastern Europeans who have reached the top despite minimal support in their home country. While Martens conceded that the downside of providing comprehensive support was that it made life "less of a struggle" for them, he pointed out that France, which offers similar benefits, had produced a steady flow of top players for many years.
Annacone added: "I don't know that I would want to will a bad quality of life on our culture here." If the LTA men's response occasionally sounded like gobbledygook – Annacone said he was happy with Bogdanovic's "process orientation" but disappointed with his "result orientation" – their reasoning that it was unfair to judge the current regime on this set of senior players was a fair one. There have been sweeping changes at the LTA since Roger Draper took over as chief executive three years ago and it will only be when the current crop of juniors reach maturity that it will be possible to make a definitive judgement.
Annacone talked about "a group of eight to 12 players who are really good." He said they came from the under-14 level and the 16-17-year-olds. We have heard that before. While Britain has consistently produced good juniors, very few maintain their progress. Robson offers huge promise of doing so, but it would be wise not to hold your breath about the rest.
Lessons from the masters: How other countries find their aces
* Despite a modest £1.2m annual budget (in contrast to the British LTA's £43m) Serbian tennis has seen recent success. Jelena Jankovic and Ana Ivanovic have impressed in the women's game, with Novak Djokovic and Viktor Troicki both in the top 50 men.
* The US game has struggled to recover from the retirements of Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras, though Andy Roddick is still going strong. James Blake was humbled in the opening round, though the Williams sisters are flying the flag for the ladies.
* Australian tennis is also struggling, Lleyton Hewitt the highest-ranked man at 56. No Aussie won a singles event last year – for the first time in 41 years. More centres like Memorial Drive, a tennis centre in Adelaide, are seen as the blueprint for rebuilding the game.
* The game in Argentina has seen a marked improvement in recent years, despite being seen there as a middle-class event. There were a mighty 13 Argentines in the men's top 100 in 2007, while Gisela Dulko overcame Maria Sharapova at Wimbledon yesterday.
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