Tim Henman believes the Lawn Tennis Association needs to invest more heavily in grass-roots tennis if the governing body is to capitalise more effectively on Andy Murray’s success.
Murray’s major triumphs over the last 13 months – in the London Olympics, at last summer’s US Open and at Wimbledon last month – could provide a platform for the LTA to grow the game in Britain, but Henman thinks it is crucial that resources are channelled in the right direction.
“I would prioritise grass-roots tennis to the point where I wouldn’t be doing other things,” he said. “My own view would be actually to cut back on what the LTA is doing at the professional level – Futures tournaments or whatever – and put more into the grass roots.”
Henman was talking at the national finals of the HSBC Road to Wimbledon, a competition in which around 20,000 youngsters compete every year. Working with the event has confirmed his view that tennis clubs are one of the keys to the future well-being of the game in Britain.
“Schools tennis isn’t easy because you’re competing against a lot of other sports and tennis isn’t the easiest sport for a school to provide,” Henman said. “However, I think the LTA can really make an impact in the clubs. These are the places where the focus is obviously on tennis.
“We need to make tennis more accessible at clubs up and down the country. That’s where you talk about needing millions of pounds and that’s why I would be sacrificing a lot of other areas and putting more into the grass roots.”
With Roger Draper stepping down as chief executive of the LTA next month and a successor yet to be appointed, the future direction of the organisation is at stake in the coming months. A fall in the number of people playing tennis was central to criticisms of Draper’s regime and David Gregson, the new independent chairman of the LTA board, has made it clear that increasing levels of participation is his biggest priority.
The LTA has often stressed the need to expand the numbers of young people playing tennis in order to increase the chances of finding future champions, though Henman believes a bigger priority is to attract more youngsters with talent into tennis and away from other sports.
“When you go to a school, it’s the same kids that make up the football, cricket, netball and rugby teams,” Henman said. “The challenge for tennis is to get as many of those kids as you can playing tennis, because if you do that we can have world-class players.
“Andy Murray is a great example. Give him a ball to throw, kick or catch and he’s very good. He’s a great athlete. He could play lots of different sports, but he chose tennis.
“When you add the hours and hours of hard work and dedication, that’s why he’s so good. We have to get more of the athletic youngsters, the ones with the hand-eye co-ordination, playing tennis.”
Henman said the television viewing figures for Wimbledon – the audience for the final peaked at more than 17 million – showed the interest there is in tennis in Britain.
“There’s no doubt that Andy’s win at Wimbledon has taken it to a different level, but I think the interest has always been there,” he said. “It was there when I was playing. But the fact is that we haven’t capitalised on that interest as we should have done, because if you look at our results on the international stage they just aren’t good enough.”
Tim Henman is an ambassador for HSBC, sponsor of the HSBC Road to Wimbledon National 14 and Under Challenge, Britain’s largest national junior grass-court tournament.