The Last Word: If Murray wins today, it will be in spite of British tennis
Sunday 30 January 2011
If you are anywhere near a television or radio tuned into the BBC this morning, expect to hear the phrase "75 years of hurt". Also anticipate, in no particular order, mentions of Fred Perry, Virginia Wade and, yes, because they must, Tim Henman. But more than anything, get ready for "Andy's doing it for Britain". Over and over.
But then look at the screen and analyse the tennis player. No, not the dark-haired, sleek, athletic one, but the ginger-haired, gangly one with the dodgy knee. Peer closer still into his wonderfully belligerent expression and you may just recognise that Andy is doing it for Andy. And doesn't care much for all that "Britain's behind you" claptrap.
In fact, Murray will actually try to blot out the rabid support of so many of his countryfolk when he steps out to face Novak Djokovic in the final of the Australian Open. "This is more of a personal dream," says Murray. "The historical thing is not something I've thought about much. You can't go in thinking, 'No one's won for 70-odd years'."
Well, you could if you were obsessed with ending your country's extraordinary barren run in the male Grand Slams. Indeed, you might even feel obliged to if your country had given you anything and everything you needed in the pursuit of the "dream" that was both yours and theirs. But as far as Murray is concerned, his country did very little to get him where he happens to be today. This wouldn't be a success for British tennis, but rather a success for a tennis player who happens to be British. There is a very big and depressing difference.
True, the Lawn Tennis Association could point to the reported £800,000 they paid Brad Gilbert essentially to coach the up-and-coming Murray five years ago. But it says so much about that most ridiculed of sporting bodies that they were rightly damned for this "investment". This money should have been spent on the developing, not on the already developed. They concentrated on the sizzle not the sausage.
Ironically, Murray was living, seething proof of the inability to bring on young talent. So miserable was the experience of his elder brotherJamie's seven months at an LTA academy in Cambridge, and such was Andy's disillusionment with a broken system, that the decision was made for the 15-year-old to spend two years at a supposedly equivalent academy in Barcelona. The strides he made in Spain were so profound it would probably be more appropriate that any glory on the Rod Laver Arena today be met with a blast of La Marcha Real than God Save The Queen.
But no, the Union Flag would be unfurled and even if HRH did resist extending her congratulations to England's favourite Scot, you can bet your bottom Caledonian fiver that David Cameron would dispatch one of those sickening "personal messages" that are, in fact, as impersonal as imaginable. And so the great period of predicting would begin. Murray's "historic" win (wouldn't it only qualify as "historic" if no Briton had achieved it before?) would inspire all these children to take up the game and the LTA would croon about a rich future. They have seen the future and the future is Daz white. Here comes the Barley Army.
Of course, the reality will be somewhat different. For starters, there are only 10,000 park courts in the United Kingdom, while five years ago there were estimated to be 33,000. The fault for that must lie squarely with the local councils, who decidedto use the space for other recreationalactivities or, in some unforgivable cases, for new car parks. But where were the LTA when this was happening? They should have been screaming it from their ivy-clad rooftops, publicising this outrage. With their inexhaustible Wimbledon profits they certainly have the wherewithal to make it a cause célèbre. After all, they hired Max Clifford a few years back to do a PR job on the game's "middle-class image".
This is the LTA's misguided obsession. They fear the reason for the paucity of British talent is the "exclusive" perception of British tennis. Oh, really? Go and explain that to British golf. When it comes to privilege, the golf clubs of this green, unpleasant land still make the tennis clubs resemble working-men's halls. So how come UK golf is currently going through something of a – dare we use the term – "golden age", with six players in the world's top 12?
There is an easy answer to that question. It is because the coaching expertise existed here to transform the explosion of interest raised by the likes of Nick Faldo, Sandy Lyle and Ian Woosnam into a broad base of golfing excellence. The home golfing unions have been able to seek out and identify the talent, and so what we have is a pedigree which is alreadyshowing itself to be self-perpetuating.Meanwhile, the plus-foured club-houses remain as stuffy as ever.
And what has British tennis got to show for its recent efforts? Granted,unlike golf they haven't had the major trophies to display. But they did have Tim Henman. His rise to prominence in the mid-1990s and his longevity thereafter means British tennis has boasted a male at the top end of the game for 15 years. Naturally, it had no right to boast, because Henman,like Murray, like Greg Rusedski, did not come through the system. But boast it still could. The role models were there.
So where are the generation of wannabe Tims, wannabe Gregs even? The example of golf, and the likes of Paul Casey, Luke Donald and Ian Poulter, who emerged more than a half-decade ago, saying they were inspired by Faldo and Co, emphasises they should have arrived by now. They haven't. The LTA have wasted the opportunity. Instead, there's just Murray, with not one other Briton in the men's top 200 to keep him company. Absurd. If not completely unfair on the poor dolt who has to shoulder the entire burden of hope and expectancy.
So it would be forgivable for Murray to think today of "doing it for his country" and mutter, "Yeah, right". He is a product of his and his family'sambitions; nothing else. That shouldn't mean that we as patriots should resist greeting his victory with anything less than sporting euphoria. But we must be careful to restrict our admiration to him and not British tennis. The latter will have had little, if anything, to do with any breakthrough. Either before, during or, it must be feared, after.
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