Why Lloyd wants Wimbledon grass to be ripped up

Former British Davis Cup captain advocates carpet courts at the All England Club but his real vitriol is reserved for the establishment and the LTA
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You can tell a lot about a chap from the way he plays golf, in fact it is almost as enlightening playing nine holes with David Lloyd as it is chatting with him for an hour beforehand. His brother, John, joins us on the golf course, too. He has a short, unfussy back-swing, and hits the ball steadily but not very far. David, on the other hand, spares nothing. A big pivot and wallop, it goes a mile, surprisingly often in the right direction.

David Lloyd, 53, is one of life's wallopers, a philosophy which has acquired him a business empire, considerable wealth and not a few enemies. It was the reason he was made Davis Cup captain and the reason he was sacked. And it is the reason I am eager to speak to him about Wimbledon, Tim Henman, the Lawn Tennis Association and the condition of British tennis.

Whatever he has to say, I know it will not be anodyne. He does not disappoint. We meet at The Wisley, an exclusive private golf club in Surrey. The car park resembles the forecourt of a Mercedes showroom, at least until I trundle in in my Volvo. It is the sort of place where, if you can afford membership, you can afford not to care what people think of you. Enter D Lloyd, object of the tennis establishment's disapproval for precisely 35 years.

"It started when I won Junior Wimbledon in 1966. In the final I played a guy called John Mendoza, who wore glasses. When it started to spit with rain I lobbed it up in the air, so he couldn't see. I got blitzed. How could I use such tactics? I thought I'd used my brains." Lloyd chuckles. He does not wear glasses himself, at least not rose-tinted ones. He later fared creditably at Wimbledon, reaching the semi-final of the men's doubles and the last 32 in the singles, but he is not sentimental about the old place. The time has come, he says, to tear up the hallowed turf.

"The men's game is hard to watch at Wimbledon now. You can get some decent matches early on, when you find two clay-court players playing each other, or a clay-court player against a serve-and-volleyer, but later, when you get a Sampras playing a Krajicek or an Ivanisevic, it's unwatchable.

"How many really great matches have we seen at Wimbledon over the last 15 years or so, since the new rackets came in? Rafter against Agassi last year was a great match, but some of the men's finals have hardly had a rally. I'm not knocking the standard – the Sampras second serve is without doubt the best second serve the game has ever seen – but it's not great to watch. I think it's a fallacy to think Wimbledon is great because it's on grass. When I played, the US Open was on grass, so was the Australian. They haven't suffered, they've got better. Other surfaces make it a better game. And here you've got a tournament calling itself the greatest in the world, but there's no Kuerten, there's no Corretja. I'm not sure how long you can say it's the best tournament when some of the top players aren't there."

OK, so what would he do about it? "I'd cover the courts and I'd go out and get the best synthetic carpet. It would still be quick, but not as quick, and it would still be green. There'd be no deviation when the courts get wet, and no damage. These new dimpled shoes rip the court up, and a Sampras, who can serve on a sixpence, will serve at a patch. When he does, he's impossible to return."

Which brings us to Henman, expected to meet his old nemesis Sampras in the quarter-finals. Lloyd has known Henman since the Great British Hope was 10 and part of the Slater squad, a coaching project funded by Lloyd and the business tycoon Jim Slater. "Even at 10 he was blinkered," says Lloyd. "He had the selfishness you need to become a top tennis player."

Like John McEnroe, Lloyd truly believes that this could be Henman's year. "He plays a great grass-court game and he believes in himself. He played some great Davis Cup matches for me, and when it comes to the crunch I do think he's got it. I think he was right to get rid of David Felgate, who was a friend more than a coach or mentor. But even when he was with Felgate, I'd like to have seen him hire someone like an Edberg for the big tournaments.

"Edberg had such a similar game to Tim's. Tim's serve still tends to go on a big point, and he tends to hit his forehand too hard. Edberg was like that. He could have helped Tim, because, when you're playing someone like Agassi or Hewitt who plays their ground shots so well, you've got to get a big percentage of your first serves in."

Which an in-form Greg Rusedski does, of course. So what price Rusedski, who today plays Byron Black for a place in the third round? "Greg can do it, too. He wins matches when he's not playing well, and he has a big heart. His problem is that he finds it hard to put 100 percent trust in people. That's why so many coaches have fallen by the wayside. He finds it hard to bring a lot of people into his world."

Together, Henman and Rusedski represent the best of British tennis, with a distinct void before you get to second-best. And Rusedski is hardly the product of British coaching. All of which, according to Lloyd, is not so much disappointing as downright shameful.

"We have two great men players. One I found and one's from Canada. There is not another British man in the top 100, maybe the top 150. We have not one lady in the top 150. And it's been the same story for 30 or 40 years. I don't believe in bad luck going on that long.

"We can't blame facilities any more. Morocco has good players, Bulgaria has good players. How many indoor courts do they have in Bulgaria? So I don't buy that as an excuse. We have the best-known and wealthiest tournament in the world, we have 60 million people... those things do not add up to having no tennis players. It's because the coaching is terrible.

"That's why we started the Slater squad, because we felt the LTA weren't doing their job. But the LTA in their stupidity went to parents and said: 'You've got to come to us'. After that it was a real gutsy call for parents to send their child to a Lloyd scheme that the LTA hated, so it died. It was the most successful scheme this country's ever had."

Like Reggie Perrin's boss, C J, Lloyd did not get where he is today by underestimating his achievements. But then his record is there for all to admire, or envy, or denigrate, not only as a decent Davis Cup captain but as the founder of the hugely successful David Lloyd leisure clubs. Those clubs are now owned, much to his chagrin, by Whitbread. So he and his son, Scott, have started a new chain of clubs called Next Generation. There are six already open and five more under construction.

"It is commercial tennis centres that will improve tennis in this country," he ventures. "You don't need the right school tie, or even the right shoes.

And anyone can get in. Even my old club, Westcliff Hard Courts, still has playing-in tests. Our tennis clubs are crying out for members, and they have playing-in tests. It's very English. I can't stomach all that. At a lot of clubs, kids aren't encouraged to play at weekends. So when should they play? We must have a junior programme, which, to his credit, Patrice Hagelauer [the LTA performance director] is doing. It's about bloody time.

"I would love to run the game in Britain, because I know I could do it better than anyone else. I don't believe in pruning. You've got to chop. There are only five or six coaches Patrice should keep, the rest have been there too long. It's a job for life – I must be the only person ever fired by the LTA – and yet they have no fire any more. And they're not up-front with the kids. When kids were 14 or 15, if I realised they couldn't make the top 100 in the world, couldn't make a living from the game, I told them. It was heartbreaking, but necessary. The LTA coaches don't do that, because they've got a numbers game to play.

"And to get coaches of world-class ability you've got to pay them a proper wage. If you pay a coach £40,000 you'll get a £40,000 coach. So pay him £100,000 and get a £100,000 coach. The LTA gets something like 30 million quid a year from Wimbledon and if I was the All England Club I'd want more say in how it is spent.

"There are so many people out there who could help, people like Billie-Jean King, who are in love with the game. I'd get her involved. I'd get my brother, John, Virginia Wade. But they live in America. Why didn't the LTA get them in? Because they wouldn't pay them enough. If you're earning 200 grand you might come down to 150, but you won't come down to 30. Now I love this country. I would never live anywhere else. I pay my taxes. I never went offshore. But what Will Carling said about old farts is true. I get cross with people like John Barratt and Sue Barker, because they don't say anything. They're part of the establishment, but the establishment is no good for tennis. What does John Crowther [the LTA chief executive] know about tennis? He used to run a tank factory."

How extraordinary, I muse after all this, that someone as anti-establishment as Lloyd should ever have been made Davis Cup captain. "You can say that again. I nearly fell off my chair when that phone call came. But I did well.

"The only match I lost with a full team was against America. I got the best two players, Henman and Rusedski, who don't like each other much, to play together. And then I was fired, basically because I said some things about some young kids coming up that they [the LTA] didn't like. They couldn't blame it on my record, so they said there was no team spirit.

"But there was great team spirit, even between Greg and Tim. I took legal action and we reached a settlement. I said: 'I don't mind being fired, but my whole success in life has revolved round team spirit, so that's a huge slight on my character'."

Lloyd's success in life has also revolved around intense competitiveness, another characteristic rather frowned upon by the pink-gin brigade. "There were terrible rows in our house every Sunday lunchtime, whether we'd played with or against each other," he recalls.

"But I was lucky. My father was fanatical about tennis and still is. I've never met anyone more fanatical. When John was married to Chrissie [Evert] he used to think he was her coach. So he let me leave school and concentrate on tennis when I was 15. But we didn't have much money. I had to hitch-hike around the country to tournaments, in fact I think John suffered slightly, because by me having it hard he got it too easy. He's tougher now."

And yet, when he dumps his golf ball into a lake on a long par three at The Wisley, John smiles broadly. David wouldn't. In fact, David insists that we all play the hole off the championship tee, to make it as hard as possible.

As I say, golf can tell you a lot about a chap.

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