Spanish clay helps to mould the future for young Britons

New warm-weather base expands training options as LTA turns to advertising to increase playing numbers
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The Independent Online

Research has shown that there are two key factors in the success of young tennis players. The first is living within 20 minutes drive or either coach or court; the second is unconditional love.

As it strives to reinvent itself after what even its chief executive, John Crowther, accepts has been 20 years of underperformance, the Lawn Tennis Association is more likely to wield influence in terms of proximity than love.

But, as another Wimbledon and all the onerous expectation it entails looms up in the tennis calendar, the LTA is working, perhaps as never before, to identify and encourage new talent.

While Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski will occupy the attendance of the great British public in SW19 eight weeks from now, the question of who will provide the requisite home interest once these two have moved on remains alarmingly open. Only Martin Lee is currently in the top 100, while Louise Latimer, who reached 108 last season, has just retired from the game.

Henman will be on the nation's television screens a little earlier this year – next week, in fact, when he appears in an advertising campaign which marks the start of a three-year LTA sponsorship deal with the manufacturers of Ariel detergent.

Broad hints have been given that Henman will get his kit off in the advertisement. But if this latest initiative reveals anything it is that those in charge at the LTA are seriously intent upon improvement.

Ariel's self-proclaimed capacity to reach between a quarter and a third of all British households will be utilised to spread the LTA word, with every packet carrying information about how to join a local tennis club. As Crowther puts it, that is advertising that money – certainly the LTA's money – cannot buy.

Broadening the base of the pyramid with greater numbers of young talents is the key element of a revolution that has been under way within British tennis since Patrice Hagelauer, formerly the chief coach with the hugely successful French national team, took over a similar role at the LTA 18 months ago. Not surprisingly, it is a French revolution, based on the model which helped produce players such as Yannick Noah, Henri Leconte, Guy Forget and more recently Sébastien Grosjean and Arnaud Clement.

Hagelauer spelt out the LTA's hopes and fears this week at the newly adopted warm-weather training base in La Manga. As he spoke, a group of promising 12 and 13-year-olds from the Welwyn club were putting his theories into practice as they underwent a gruelling, if varied, session as part of a fortnight's intensive training break.

They were working in almost 30 degrees heat on the clay courts established in a landscape of orange trees, palms and scrubby hills which are rapidly giving way to pastel shades as hotels and timeshare apartments encroach ever further up their slopes.

Commercial building work dots the valley in which the La Manga resort resides, and work is also in progress on creating another six clay courts next to those currently being used by the LTA, which are due to be ready by June.

From the resort's viewpoint, the intention is to make a name for itself in tennis, which will expand its existing reputation as the place to go for golfers, footballers, and, on occasion, as Stan Collymore infamously demonstrated, footballers wishing to express themselves with fire extinguishers.

That June estimate looked optimistic this week as the local work-force set about its task in what you would have to describe as a leisurely fashion. The courts, though, will soon become part of a facility that will fulfil an increasingly important role within British tennis.

Under the partnership established in October of last year, the LTA has 250 free weeks available at the resort, which means it can schedule visitors for any parties, whether they be the Davis Cup team wishing to prepare for clay court matches, or groups of youngsters involved in the Futures (10-13) and Academy (13-16) programmes.

This week it was the turn of the Welwyn group to work under the general supervision of Britain's former Davis Cup players Mike Walker and Jeremy Bates, a group which included the No 1 girls under-13 player, Madelaine Brooks, and 12-year-old Stuart Haverlock, who reached the under-13 semi-finals last season.

"We are trying to change the perception among British players that clay is something to be frightened of," Bates said. "It's been nice this week to see boys and girls here, sliding and hitting. In years gone by, seeing British players on clay has been like watching Bambi on ice."

Henman's achievement this month in reaching the semi-finals on the clay of the Monte Carlo tournament will have done nothing to discourage the youngsters now finding their feet on the surface, although Bates stresses that their work prepares them not just for clay court matches, but improves their general game.

All the youthful confidence in the world, however, cannot obscure the central problem facing British tennis, one which Hagelauer made starkly clear as he compared the system he left to the one he is now seeking to galvanise.

"We have to understand where we are," he said. "France, like many European countries, gets unbelievable support from the government, cities and local authorities. We are not competing in the same league.

"At the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome, France's results were a disaster. They had no medals. So the Government decided to support sport in France. Sport is now considered a way to have integration of minorities, less people in hospital, less violence on the streets.

"Most clubs in France have five courts and a clubhouse, and there are 9,200 of them. Around 8,000 of them are built and maintained by cities and local authorities, and each one costs £500,000. We are talking about billions of pounds.

"People look at our sport and they see we get £30m every year from Wimbledon and they think we are a rich sport. But that is peanuts compared with the millions of pounds you have to pay for building indoor facilities and all the infrastructure we need.

"Britain is competing against countries where sport is nearly nationalised. This is the heart of the problem."

That problem is reflected in simple statistics. In Britain, there is one indoor court per 58,000 population. In France that figure is 14,000, and in Sweden, which also has a thriving Academy system to spot and encourage young talent, it is 9,000.

As the LTA works on lobbying for Lottery funding in the long term, however, Hagelauer is cautiously optimistic about prospects over the next five years. An Academy system on French lines is being established, with four bases at Bath, Loughborough, Welwyn and Leeds, and the LTA will seek over the next three years to accredit 500 of its 2,500 registered clubs within the programme.

In terms of short-term improvement in élite performance, however, his caution perhaps outweighs his optimism. "This year I want to get two more players in the top 100," he said. "You may say that sounds unambitious, but I am not in a position where I am dreaming."

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