Stan Hey: Nice feng shui in the debenture lounge, shame about the state of British game

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If you think that Wimbledon has been disappointing for British tennis fans, whether they camped out all night on Church Road, SW19 or scaled "Henman Hill" to get a sight of tiny Tim on a giant screen, can you imagine how those who paid up to £30,000 for their tickets must feel?

These aren't the "sighs" (sigh and a shrug = "mug") who fell foul of the ticket touts, sorry "event brokers", who litter every approach to Wimbledon, but those with spare money to buy up "debentures" in the All England Lawn Tennis Ground plc. The five-year "bonds" have been trading at £9,900 for Court One, and from £23,000 to £30,000 for Centre Court. Clearly Pat Cash is not just the name of a former Wimbledon Champion.

Debenture holders get their investments back with a bit of interest but I suspect that most of them buy into Wimbledon for their "free" ticket allocation and its social opportunities. The money they put in - the 2001-05 issue raised £46m - helped the development of the complex.

There's the spankingly modern Court One, with clean sight-lines and a more even distribution of light than the gloomy, Gothic Centre Court. There's a vast press centre with roof-top bars and restaurants which overlook the players' roof-top bars and restaurants.

And of course the debenture holders got themselves a lounge and restaurant with their own money, complete with hotel-style entrance, rubber plants and feng shui aligned sofas. Just imagine the social cachet that's been available to them over the past fortnight. There can't be many places where you can eat, drink, watch top-class tennis, mingle with Sir Cliff Richard, see the rain-clouds sweeping in and the British competitors being swept out.

So I wonder if any of them read the small print on the back of their bonds - "please note that British players winning is not guaranteed in this transaction", or words to that effect. I'm sure that if I put up that sort of money I'd want more for it than yet another final between two sisters, and one between a Swiss Quentin Tarantino look-alike and a Graeco-Australian built like a wrestler.

I wonder if the debenture holders, not to mention those fans who queued up, now feel cheated by the annual bout of "Henmania"? This phenomenon of Henman as potential world-beater is beginning to sound like those reassurances from The Equitable Life back in the late 1990s. Yet the investment in British tennis has poured in over the past decade or so. Apart from what the debenture types stump up, Wimbledon rakes in ticket money, television fees, catering profits and every cent that the International Management Group can raise from sponsorship and on-site corporate entertaining. One immediate irony is that Henman is managed by IMG, whose recently deceased founder, Mark McCormack, turned sport into an investment industry.

But the greater irony is that as Wimbledon passes its annual surplus from the Championships on to the Lawn Tennis Association - over £31m in 2000 - the returns seem increasingly diminished. We don't even seem able to get a Brit in on the basis of Buggin's Turn. Apart from Henman and the Anglicised Greg Rusedski, there aren't many players in the British ranks who have achieved much, or who are ever likely to. Away from Wimbledon fortnight, they trudge around the ATP tour, living off small prize money from early-round exits, then drift out of the game.

But if the development money is in place, together with a gallant but doomed role model, where does the fault-line lie? Much has been made of the shortage of urban youth coming into the sport, despite many well-meaning initiatives, but I wonder how many 14 and 15-year-olds actually watched yesterday's final? Or how many of them rushed out afterwards to find a court they could play on? The majority will have been skateboarding or slam-dunking on a concrete basketball court. Tennis is still a remote sport, partially because of its social origins in the middle class and primarily because it was financially developed in this country from the top down, a structure not guaranteed to succeed even in business.

There was probably a brief period in the 1960s when Bobby Wilson, Mike Sangster and Roger Taylor did well enough, and even my state school, in a small industrial town outside Liverpool, had four grass courts and a teacher who had time to coach. There were even two grass courts in the local park on which you could play all day in the summer for five shillings. That park is now nothing more than a dogs' toilet, and everyone knows what happened to school playing fields in the 1980s, sold off under government pressure to property developers. Some of these are probably Wimbledon debenture holders who watched a Swiss take on an Aussie at Centre Court yesterday, reaping what they've sown.

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