Wimbledon or bust: young Brits on long road to glory
Britain's woeful record in developing future tennis stars is likely to be exposed again in SW19 next week, but the experiences of two young women taking contrasting routes to the top suggest progress is finally being made. Reports by Nick Harris
Tuesday 14 June 2005
Case Study One: Artijeta Goxhuli
Case Study One: Artijeta Goxhuli
Currently: At LTA Academy in Bath
By the age of 13, the hazardous road towards tennis stardom had taken Artijeta Goxhuli from London to Miami, across Florida and back to Britain, where her father, Ragip, accepted the Lawn Tennis Association's help to try to make her dreams come true.
Now 15, Artijeta - Arti for short - is in her second year as a student at the LTA academy at Bath University, not that her journey has become hassle-free.
Last year she was out injured by a chest infection (January), whiplash from a car crash (February-March), a serious fall (May-August) and a hip injury (October-November). An ankle problem followed, from which she is almost fully recovered. Despite all that, she is rated among the top five British players in her age group.
When Simon Jones, the LTA's director of academies, says he is confident that "Arti's momentum will be rewarded", it is tempting to ask: "What possible momentum?" Similarly, when Jones talks about British tennis finally heading in the right direction, a knee-jerk reaction might be: "Still nowhere, then?" Neither response would be fair.
Goxhuli has flourished during her injury-free months, when a virtuous circle of technical improvements and soaring confidence have brought the best from her game, which is built on a strong serve, fierce determination, and a devastating backhand down the line.
The LTA also seems imbued with a new confidence, instilled by its evolving academies system and the prospect of a dedicated National Tennis Centre, due to open in Roehampton next year.
The fact that Goxhuli is still aiming for the top, and that the LTA is doing all in its power to help, says positive things about both of them.
The Goxhuli family are no strangers to adversity. In 1989 Ragip, who hails from a staunchly nationalist Albanian Kosovan family, arrived in London to study English. He ended up staying, initially illegally, because of fears of the Serb persecution under Slobodan Milosevic back home.
He had little money and slept in a hall in Kings Cross for £2 a night. He took work where he could find it but managed to bring his wife, Shukrije, to London, where Artijeta was born in March 1990, followed by a sister, Abresha, in October 1991. Eventually he found a secure job as a foreman at Parcelforce and, in 1997, indefinite leave to remain in Britain.
His daughters first showed an aptitude for tennis as four-year-olds in a local park at Acton, West London. They then attended their local David Lloyd tennis centre, where the LTA provided weekly coaching sessions.
But by late 2001, when Artijeta was 11 and Abresha almost 10, Ragip concluded that Florida was the only place to transform them to champions.
With one "crazy" decision he took out a bank loan, using his house as collateral, and moved his family to the Rick Macci academy, 30 miles outside Miami, where the all-conquering Williams sisters and Jennifer Capriati had studied.
By May 2002, with money tight despite a 75 per cent discount in the girls' $1,600-a-month fees, and after a shake-up in the coaching staff, the Goxhulis needed somewhere else to train. They went to Nick Bollettieri's academy on Florida's west coast, where they were given a free, four-month appraisal.
At the end of their try-out Arti reached her age-group quarter-finals in the prestigious Eddie Herr junior international tournament. But again money and coaching issues caused the family to move on. The family spent 2003 between Florida and Britain, exploring options.
The LTA then made an offer the family could not refuse - a place at the Bath academy, a venture that was still rising from the starting blocks when the Goxhulis went to Florida.
Today at Bath, you will find leading coaches, including Tito Vasquez, the former director of Argentina's hugely successful development programme. Among the facilities - and they are similar at the LTA's Loughborough centre - are eight indoor courts, eight outdoor courts (two of them clay), gym facilities used by athletes from 12 other high-profile sports, including Olympians and England rugby players, a hydrotherapy pool, an ice bath, a video analysis suite and all manner of experts in diet, fitness and sports psychology.
Some areas still need addressing, not least the absence of on-site accommodation, which would allow the LTA to have a 24-hour influence on everything from diet to discipline. Students' families either move locally or their children live in home-stays nearby, although on-site housing is planned for the not-too-distant future. But the academies are expanding, and have 65 promising British youngsters (aged 12-16) enrolled between them, 32 of them full-time and 33 on an "access" basis to use the facilities one or two days a week.
Arti Goxhuli is a full-time academy student at Bath and as such spends five days a week there, 37 weeks a year. Her days start with schoolwork at 6.45am (she follows a home tutoring programme), typically include nine hours at the academy, and end with more schoolwork.
"If you want something badly enough then you have to work for it," she says. "I preferred the weather in Florida but I want to be a professional, and so you do what it takes, wherever you are."
The LTA's ultimate aim is an increase in the number of Britons in the world's top 100, a status that most tour professionals - prodigies aside - would be happy to achieve by 22 or 23.
"It's my ambition to win Wimbledon and be the best ranking I can," says Goxhuli.
Another seven or eight years, and she should know whether she'll get there.
Moore revels in discipline of Bollettieri school of hard knock-ups
Case Study Two: Tara Moore
Currently: Scholar at the Nick Bollettieri Academy, Florida
She was born in Hong Kong and is being groomed in America but there is no doubting Tara Moore's allegiance to Britain. "Doncaster," says the 12-year-old prodigy in response to a question about her favourite place. "It's where I stay with my grandad when I come over. I love Yorkshire."
Which is good news for British tennis, because Moore, a scholar at the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Florida, is shaping up to become a star of the future.
In November last year she won her age-group singles title at the Eddie Herr International, a prestigious junior tournament where she powered past the hot Belgium prospect, Tamaryn Hendler, in the final. "The way they hit the ball, that would have been an 18-under match 25 years ago," Nick Bollettieri said.
Moore is already the British No 1 in her age group, and regularly competes in tournaments against girls five or six years her senior.
"Tara is the most exciting British prospect that I've seen in a generation," said Gabe Jaramillo, the NBTA's director of tennis.
"She's a hell of a player," added Bollettieri, who personally handed Moore a full scholarship at the age of 10. "With anyone so young, all the usual caveats apply about the need to be careful with her physical, mental and emotional development," he added. "But from what we've seen so far, she's the real deal. I'd place her among the best handful of players of her age in the world."
Moore's mother, Monet, comes from Hong Kong, although her father is English, hence the Yorkshire grandad. Tara lived in Hong Kong until she was three, then England until six, before returning to Hong Kong, where she started playing tennis aged seven.
"I was a chubby youngster and my uncle thought it would be a good way to lose weight," she said. "My mum took me to a coach for an hour a week, but I loved it so much that I played more and more." She was competing in tournaments before she was nine, and at 10, another Hong Hong coach recommended that she visit Bollettieri's, where she was offered a scholarship on the spot. "Mum said no because she thought I was too young," Tara said. "But I came back six months later and have been here since."
The academy's "tough love" reputation and intense work ethic were only briefly daunting. "I'd heard it described as the world's toughest playground. I thought, 'I'll try that, then'.
"I was a bit scared at first - it was a new place, new people. But it's a better place to train than Hong Kong - less humid, more courts, great facilities, and I put all my trust in the coaches.
"Yes, they scream at you sometimes, but it only makes you play better. You get loads of feedback, good and bad, but then bad can be good if you take it on board. And you feel special that you have the opportunity to be here."
A typical day starts with breakfast at 5.30am, followed by 45 minutes in the International Performance Institute gym and 90 minutes of tennis, before the first break of the day, which lasts 10 minutes.
More tennis follows until 10am, then school, on site, followed by lunch and a mixture of tennis and IPI sessions until 5.30pm. Weekends are spent at tournaments, or in recreational matchplay. "And swimming," Moore adds. "I love swimming."
There are also regular "mind conditioning" sessions with sports psychologists. "Every two weeks, it's about how to handle pressure," she said "It's not just tennis and fitness, they work on your brains too."
Bollettieri's regular motivational speeches are also important. "When he's positive about you, you're on top of the world."
Which is precisely where Moore aims to be. "I'd like to be at least top 20 in the world," she says, when asked how far she can go. "Actually," she adds, "I'd like to be No 1."
The Bollettieri system aims to have its most promising youngsters making their junior Grand Slam debuts at the French Open in the spring after they turn 15. Roland Garros, 2008, watch out for Tara Moore.
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