Why is Britain so bad at tennis?
After Sunday's Davis Cup loss to Lithuania, John Lloyd's side are at a new low. Paul Newman asks how it came to this
Tuesday 09 March 2010
The Lawn Tennis Association has an annual budget of £59.7m compared with the Lithuanian federation's £90,000. Britain has 52 world-ranked male singles players and Lithuania just three. How could Britain lose to such opponents?
Because for decades Britain has failed to produce a consistent flow of world-class players. The individual successes of Tim Henman, Greg Rusedski and Andy Murray have simply papered over a lack of strength in depth.
Those failings have been exposed by the retirements of Henman and Rusedski and the occasional absence of Murray, who, like four of the world's other top six players, did not make himself available for national duty last weekend. Britain has one man in the world's top 100; France has 12, Spain 12 and Germany 11.
Lithuania's Ricardas Berankis, the world No 195, was the highest-ranked singles player in the Europe Africa Zone Group Two tie against Britain. The results in Vilnius went according to world rankings, apart from the decisive fifth rubber, in which Laurynas Grigelis (world No 519) beat Dan Evans (No 252).
Do British players receive adequate support?
The LTA spends some £25m a year on the development of "high-performance" players. It can do so thanks in large part to the annual surplus it receives from Wimbledon (£29.2m last year) and its £25m five-year sponsorship deal with Aegon, a financial services company.
Forty-three British players receive funding as members of "Team Aegon". Anne Keothavong, until recently British No 1, and Laura Robson, the 2008 junior Wimbledon champion, both received the equivalent of £48,000 last year to provide them with personal coaches. Other senior players received £24,000 each and juniors £16,000. They all had a £12,000 travel budget.
British players also have the benefit of world-class training facilities, sports science support and highly paid coaches at the swish National Tennis Centre at Roehampton. The head coach of men's tennis is Paul Annacone, who used to work with Pete Sampras and Henman.
Are the players too pampered?
There is a view that British players have it too easy and are not hungry enough for success. Critics compare them with eastern Europeans who receive little material support and have to work hard for everything they get. Recognising those criticisms, the LTA now gives players annual targets, covering both their ranking and specific areas like fitness, diet and technical aspects of their game. If the targets are not met, funding can be cut. Eleven players, including Alex Bogdanovic, the British No 2, were dropped from Team Aegon at the end of last year.
Critics also point to the annual handing out of Wimbledon wild cards. They say it rewards undeserving players and that when they lose it serves only to heap scorn on British tennis. Last year Gerry Sutcliffe, the Minister for Sport, said he was "tired of excuses" after nine out of 11 Britons lost in the first round. They included Bogdanovic, who has received eight Wimbledon wild cards and lost every time.
The attitude and commitment of some British juniors have also been questioned. Two years ago, for example, the LTA took away all of Evans' funding for four months after he was seen in a nightclub in the early hours on the day of his boys' doubles match at Wimbledon, which he lost in straight sets.
Given that this was the first time that Britain have lost five Davis Cup matches in succession, should heads roll?
John Lloyd, Britain's Davis Cup captain, could be first in the firing line. His team selections have been questioned by some. Bogdanovic is ranked 94 and 97 places respectively above James Ward and Evans, Britain's two singles players in Vilnius, but was overlooked. Lloyd, nevertheless, could point to Bogdanovic's woeful Davis Cup record, the 25-year-old having lost all seven of his "live" singles rubbers. Lloyd has been a popular captain and it is not his fault that the country fails to produce better players.
Instead, the LTA might look at the coaching of the elite men. While Roger Draper, the chief executive, insists it will take time for his changes to bear fruit, there has been little evidence of improvement among the current leading Britons, with the notable exception of Murray. The LTA could also ask itself whether it is attempting too much. Some critics believe the LTA should be more of a facilitator, helping independent academies and clubs to develop players, rather than acting as an all-embracing hub.
Does tennis attract enough of Britain's most talented sporting youngsters?
No. Football, rugby and cricket have had better success in identifying and recruiting talent. The LTA sees this as a big priority, along with increasing participation. It says the number of juniors who play competitively has been rising rapidly.
A programme backed by the LTA, the Tennis Foundation and Aegon is promoting the sport in schools. In the last 12 months more than 3,000 primary school teachers have been trained to deliver tennis and 3,000 schools have been given equipment. The use of slower balls and smaller courts is also seen as a way of making tennis more accessible to children.
Is there any cause for optimism?
The woes of Britain's men have coincided with a marked improvement in the women. Keothavong, Elena Baltacha and Katie O'Brien have broken into the world's top 100 in recent times, while Robson and Heather Watson have won junior Grand Slam titles.
There has been talk of Britain having to "miss a generation" among the men, but optimism that a group of promising teenagers led by Oliver Golding, George Morgan, Jack Carpenter and James Marsalek can eventually be successful. However, we have heard that before.
Can Britain fall any lower?
Yes. Britain need to beat Turkey in their next match in order to avoid relegation to the Davis Cup's lowest tier alongside Albania, Andorra and Malta. Without Murray, who must be a doubt given that the match will be played the weekend after Wimbledon, the highest-ranked singles player in the tie is likely to be Turkey's Marsel Ilhan, the world No 122.
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