The LTA is history - anyone for Tennis GB?

As British tennis struggles to attract new talent, John Roberts backs a campaign to modernise its image - starting with a name change
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The Independent Online

In the latest attempt to unburden British tennis of its snobbish, middle-class, Victorian garden party image, and attract more young people to the sport, the Lawn Tennis Association is considering changing its name to Tennis GB.

In the latest attempt to unburden British tennis of its snobbish, middle-class, Victorian garden party image, and attract more young people to the sport, the Lawn Tennis Association is considering changing its name to Tennis GB.

While many traditionalist supporters of the British game and its establishment will cry "sacrilege", particularly the passionate crusaders for the preservation and promotion of grass-court tennis, others are likely to recognise the need to change the nation's perception of the sport as merely an annual pageant at Wimbledon.

Yesterday, at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, the prize-money for the Champions in June was announced, along with an update on plans for the future, including a retractable roof on Centre Court in 2009. That in itself would have been considered a non-starter five years ago, before technological advancements made it feasible as well as commercially desirable.

There is no suggestion that Wimbledon should drop "Lawn" or "Croquet" from its venerable title, which conveys precisely what the club is about. But the role of the Lawn Tennis Association, partners in the Championships, is to foster the sport, not only on grass, but also on its various court surfaces: clay, concrete, and indoor carpet.

Tim Henman, Britain's leading player, represents the typical, clean-cut image of tennis in this country, from his classical style of serve-and-volley to his public persona, on the court and off it. His former coach, David Felgate, is the LTA's director of performance, responsible for the nurturing and development of talented players through the national governing body's coaching and training programme.

Four times a Wimbledon semi-finalist, the 29-year-old Henman still has the ambition and the game to become the first British man to win the All England Club singles title since Fred Perry in 1936.

Henman is also keen to improve his record on other surfaces. Last week, on clay, he advanced to the singles quarter-finals at the Monte Carlo Masters for the third time in a row and won the doubles title for a second time.

Henman would not be adverse to the LTA becoming Tennis GB, although he views the idea as little more than cosmetic surgery. "If they want to do that and they feel strongly about it, then fine," Henman said. "It's not irrelevant, that's the wrong word, but I think the fundamentals of what we've got to do with the game are much more important than what it's called.

"I understand where they're coming from, getting away from that middle-class image. It's good to get away from that, because that has been one of our problems. But that is such a small piece of the picture. I think the feel-good factor about the professional game, on the men's side, certainly, has definitely taken a turn for the better, and I hope that continues."

Up until the late 1970s, three of the world's four Grand Slam championships were played on grass (the French Open, as ever, was played on clay). When the US Open in New York was switched from Forest Hills to Flushing Meadows in 1978, rubberised concrete became the preferred surface. The United States Tennis Association dropped "Lawn" from its name.

The Australian Lawn Tennis Association became Tennis Australia even before the Australian Open, in Melbourne, moved from the grass courts at Kooyong to the rubberised concrete courts of the National Tennis Centre in 1988. The International Lawn Tennis Federation had already cut its lawn.

Your correspondent floated the idea of "Tennis GB" in these columns in February 1990. Ian Peacock, who at that time was the LTA's chief executive and who recently retired from the Golf Foundation, liked the idea to eradicate "a stuffy, snob image", but foresaw obstacles.

"A lot of people like tradition," he said, "and would take the view that the Lawn Tennis Association conveys precisely what it is, especially when one considers Wimbledon's status in the game. There's a lot to be said for tradition. At the same time I would support any move that would show the public that we are ordinary people working hard to improve the sport in this country."

John Crowther, who succeeded Peacock at the LTA, may have similar difficulty persuading the councillors that the marketing department would welcome a switch to Tennis GB, representing a cooler modern image.

The annual surplus from the Wimbledon Championships is handed to the LTA for the development of the sport, and since the mid-1980s millions of pounds have been invested in the building of indoor centres and on coaching and training initiatives. A new National Training Centre at Roehampton, London, is planned. Although many observers have argued that the LTA ought to concentrate on administering the sport and leave the coaching to others, the governing body embraces every aspect of the game in this country.

Down the years, after a decade of complacency following the introduction of open tennis in 1968, when the sport turned professional, the LTA's endeavours have produced negligible results, and the organisation has been classified under the law of diminishing returns.

Henman, from Oxfordshire, was partly the product of an independent coaching scheme run by David Lloyd, the former British Davis Cup player, and Greg Rusedski, whose mother was born in Yorkshire, was imported from Canada. With Henman moving into the concluding phase of his career and the 30-year-old Rusedski looking no farther than Wimbledon 2005, there is a desperate need for fresh faces.

Virginia Wade, in 1977, was the last British woman to win the Wimbledon singles title. Since then, only Jo Durie has approached being a contender, and the current state of British women's tennis is embarrassing. It is not possible to force people to play tennis, and, with so many leisure-time alternatives nowadays, the task of competing with other sports for participants is becoming increasingly difficult.

The LTA's drive to persuade athletic children to play the game has been handicapped by the reluctance of certain clubs to welcome juniors, make time for them on court, and ensure they receive proper coaching and have an opportunity to play competitively.

Henman is right. Changing the name would not alter the basic problem, but any step that will prompt youngsters to pick up a racket is worth taking.

THE SEARCH FOR PROGRESS: ATTEMPTS TO TRANSFORM BRITISH TENNIS

1978 A government inquiry into the state of British tennis was damning. The LTA, lambasted for lack of action in developing the game, was told to get its act together and develop the grass roots.

1986Launch of the Indoor Tennis Initiative, designed to develop indoor tennis centres. There are now 53 Indoor Tennis Initiatives in Britain, and 1,200 indoor courts.

1997Launch of Play Tennis initiative, which offers free tennis days at 1,000 clubs. "The equation is basic. More players lead to better players." Attracts 10,000 people to the sport annually, and 53,000 last year.

1998Launch of Community Tennis Partnerships, with clubs encouraged to form links with schools and the local authority.

2000The LTA scraps around 50 initiatives that are deemed not to be working, preferring to concentrate on key initiatives with three primary objectives. They are: attracting and keeping juniors in the game; changing the culture among clubs to become more "junior friendly"; identifying the best young players and helping them develop.

Launch of Club Vision, which is the LTA's "strategy to provide progressive clubs with greater support and resources". Clubs are given financial incentives to provide facilities and court time for kids.

2001Launch of City Tennis Club programme, designed to attract new players from diverse, especially deprived, backgrounds. There are now 24 CTC's in inner-city parks.

Launch of Mini Tennis. Aim is to teach children aged 4-11 the basic skills through the use of modified court and ball sizes. This is done in a fun environment on coloured courts. There are 50 Mini Tennis county coaches working at 685 clubs, with 70,000 kids playing regularly.

Launch of JNRtennis, another programme aimed at juniors.

2004Launch of Ariel Tennis Ace, a talent search backed by Tim Henman and John McEnroe that offers free coaching in four cities to 9-12-year-olds.

THE TELLING FIGURES: HOW BRITAIN HAS LAGGED BEHIND

1The number of British players inside the world's top 100. That is Tim Henman. Two more men, Greg Rusedksi (No 107) and Arvind Parmar (No 146) are inside the top 200. There are 11 Britons in the men's top 500 and 26 inside the top 1,000.

1.2The amount in billions of pounds the LTA estimates is needed to build 5,000 new indoor courts to match facilities in countries such as France, where local government funds tennis infrastructure.

1.4The amount in millions of pounds spent annually by the LTA on coach education and licensing.

3.5The number in millions of tennis players in Britain who play at any level. The 3.5m is an increase of 600,000 from the 2.9m estimated to have played in 2001.

4.8 The amount in millions spent annually by the LTA on "élite performance" - the best players in LTA and independent squads, academies and training camps.

7 The number of years since any British player reached a Grand Slam final. That was Greg Rusedski at the US Open in 1997.

25.8The profit in millions made by the All England Club from last year's Wimbledon and passed on to the LTA for grass roots development in the game. The AEC has given the LTA almost £300m in the past 10 years.

27The number of British women inside the top 1,000 players. There are none in the top 100, and only one, Anne Keothavong (No 175) inside the top 200. Also, the number of years since any Briton won a Grand Slam (Virginia Wade at Wimbledon in 1977). The last British man to win was Fred Perry (Wimbledon, 1936). The last British man to reach the Wimbledon final was Bunny Austin (1938). Tim Henman has lost four Wimbledon semi-finals.

2,500 The number of tennis clubs in Britain, down from 5,000 in 1991. There are 10,000 clubs in France, where there are 1m licensed adults (who play at some competitive level) and 500,000 licensed juniors. Britain has around 150,000 licensed players in total, with around 30,000 juniors.

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