Women face long trek in shadows of Wimbledon

Retirements and injury add to woes of already struggling British game after only first-round whitewash in history of championships

British women's tennis is rapidly becoming the dodo of international sport. Two of the nation's former No 1's are dropping out of the scene: Julie Pullin, 27, retired after Wimbledon and is coaching in Brighton, and Lucie Ahl, 29, has decided to retire in the autumn. Another, Elena Baltacha, 19, is taking six months out of competition to recover from illness and injury.

Baltacha, Ahl and Pullin, whose combined world ranking is 741, are currently listed in Britain's top five, along with Anne Keothavong and Jane O'Donoghue. The 19-year-old Keothavong is the reigning British No1, with a world ranking of 150, and the 20-year-old O'Donoghue is No 3 in the country and 239th in the game at large.

Wimbledon was more embarrassing than ever for the British women's game, with the nation's entrants - the five named above - all losing in the first round for the first time in the 110-year history of the women's singles. Keothavong, Baltacha, Ahl, O'Donoghue and Pullin were beaten by higher-ranked players, though that was hardly surprising given their standing in the WTA Tour's pecking order.

David Felgate, completing his first three months as the Lawn Tennis Association's director of performance, did his best to be positive. "Three of the girls are young and I can see a future for them," he said. "I can see them getting here in future on their ranking and not on wild cards. When you look at the younger players there's ability and talent, and my job is to ensure it stays there."

Baltacha, for one, seems determined to reach her potential. She was diagnosed with liver damage almost a year ago. Tests after Wimbledon last month showed she was born with liver problems, but also revealed that a bacterial infection, and not her liver condition, was causing her to feel tired. "I'm still young," Baltacha said, "and six months isn't that long - it should help me play for another 10 years."

Felgate's initial assessment prompted him to appoint Jeremy Bates to head of performance, extending the former British No 1's responsibilities to include women's national training. Bates said he was looking forward to the challenge. He has been around too long to underestimate the enormity of the task.

Below the crumbling top five are an assortment of players, young and not so young, none of whom have done much so far to suggest they will darken the court of the American Williams sisters or the high-flying Belgians, Justine Henin-Hardenne and Kim Clijsters, or the impressive group of east Europeans with Russians to the fore, the 16-year-old Maria Sharapova in their midst.

Britain's leading girls are also striving to climb the International Tennis Federation's junior rankings, with Katherine Baker ranked 99, Katie O'Brien 108, Hannah Grady 172, Claire Peterzan 261, and Maria Spenceley 283.

The women could respond by pointing out that the men's game in this country is hardly flourishing behind Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski, and even the top two are having a difficult season after injuries, with Henman ranked 38 and Rusedski at 68.

But there was a time when British women outshone the men at Wimbledon and elsewhere, including triumphs at the All England Club by Angela Mortimer in 1961 (against her compatriot Christine Truman in the final), Ann Jones in 1969 and Virginia Wade in 1977. There were also contenders of the calibre of Angela Buxton, Sue Barker and Jo Durie, the last British woman to make an impact in the world rankings, reaching No 5.

The day The Independent was born, in October 1986, Durie was ranked No 19 in the world and there was not a British male in the top 100. One of Durie's British rivals at the time was Anne Hobbs, aka "Hobbit". Then, as in the era of Harry Potter, tennis followers were waiting for the LTA's alchemy to work.

In three months' time, the LTA will receive the latest pre-tax surplus of up to £30m from the Wimbledon Championships for the development of the British game. Questioned recently about the LTA, Tim Phillips, the All England Club chairman, said: "They've got a set of programmes now which are very good. They are having to make up lost ground, and they are doing that fast." Asked about the partnership between the All England Club and the LTA, Phillips said: "We have a thing called the joint finance committee and that gives a chance to compare notes. But the way it operates, this partnership, is that we concentrate on what we do here and they concentrate on propagating the game, and it's obviously dangerous, with very little knowledge, to try and second-guess what they may be doing, because we don't actually know the details. All we know is that we like the sound of the performance programme that they are funding at the moment."

Felgate's predecessor, the Frenchman Patrice Hagelauer, was frustrated by Britain's tennis club culture, centred on social doubles, and warned that the nation would be left with "tennis clubs for pensioners". As the quest to increase the number of players continues, a major concerns is that girls no longer seem to want to play tennis in their teens.

"It's a worldwide issue," said Rebecca Miskin, whose job is to attract, retain and develop talent as the LTA's director of tennis operations. "Participation is declining in all sports, not just tennis," she added, "and the situation is more accentuated in girls. Tennis in Britain in no different.

"Tennis is a technically difficult sport. It's not that we don't get girls coming into the sport. It's a question of keeping them in their teenage years. Twelve and 13-year-olds now are more like 15 and 16-year-olds. Girls are highly sensitive as they hit 12 or 13. Competition can make them feel more vulnerable.

"We must meet their expectations in a tennis environment, off the court as well as on the court. It's more about what happens off the court. You don't want someone just turning up for a tennis lesson. We need to be better at engaging their interest at the club by making tennis fun."

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