The State of British Tennis: Game set to march forward: As more take up the racket and with significant investment at junior level, the wealthiest of the sport's backward nations could at last be equipped to fulfil some promise. John Roberts reports

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The Independent Online
STEFFI GRAF is in Brighton this week to defend the Midland Bank Championship, and will add dollars 70,000 (pounds 42,000) to her fortune if she is successful. The Wimbledon champion requires dollars 171,327 to equal her German compatriot Boris Becker's dollars 10m in official career prize money, a sum which represents a fraction of their income from endorsements.

Graf, 23, has been a professional for 10 years; Becker, 25 next month, has been earning for eight years. During the past decade, as these twin Bundesbanks with rackets have prospered (aside from other lucrative triumphs, Graf and Becker have won seven Wimbledon singles titles between them), the All England Club has handed profits of pounds 65.75m to the Lawn Tennis Association for the development of the British game. This year's Wimbledon donation to the LTA, probably in the region of pounds 12m, is due to be announced next month.

Such funding has made Britain the wealthiest of the backward tennis nations, and the failure to produce even moderately successful players has exposed the LTA to constant criticism and ridicule.

The summer provided a rare hurrah when Jeremy Bates, the nation's No 1, came within a sneeze of a place in the quarter-finals of a quite magnificent Wimbledon. Within months, depression had returned. The 30-year-old from Solihull was unable to inspire Britain's Davis Cup team, whose defeat in India meant relegation from the World Group (they feature in today's draw for the Euro-Africa Zone). Britain's women had already slumped from the elite group in the Federation Cup.

Any advances by British players in the Brighton tournament, which starts today, will be a bonus; indeed the survival of the event itself is a plus in view of the demise of the men's indoor championships in Birmingham, which has been lost to Antwerp, who are willing to meet the ATP Tour's rising prices. Still, to resort to the perennial quip, the National Championships in Telford next month is guaranteed British winners.

Seven years after becoming the LTA's first executive director, Ian Peacock is in the customary situation of debating the chicken and the egg question, pointing to the number of indoor centres that have been built and endeavouring to be optimistic when his detractors see only shells and no chicks.

'I used to work for Slazengers for many years (28 years, rising to managing director) and so I looked at the tennis market from the other side,' Peacock, 57, said. 'I remember very well selling in Europe in the Seventies, and you saw the dynamic expansion that was going on in France and Germany in the late Seventies and early Eighties. When you were talking to people in tennis there, they would say, 'Oh, that's fine, we built more indoor centres - but look, we haven't got a player'. I remember watching all my tennis ball sales - which was all I really cared about - going up, year on year, 10 per cent, 15 per cent, listening uninterestedly to the federations complaining about the playing standards, because I was moving tennis balls.

'We've been investing for five or six years in this country, and, apart from the rankings of the juniors, which are very encouraging, the other thing that cheers me up most of all is that speaking to Dunlop and Slazenger and Wilson, they all tell me that Britain is the only tennis racket market in Europe that grew in 1992, and the only one for which they are forecasting growth in 1993.

'So, if there's real growth going on in the market, that's the real sign that eventually that growth will stimulate in Britain what it did in France and Germany when it's come through the system. If more people are going out and buying rackets and buying balls, that growth stimulates strength and dynamism within the game, which will eventually produce players capable of playing in the top 50 in the world, or better.'

Strength? Dynamism? A stimulated market? Can this be Britain in the Nineties, let alone British tennis? 'I said when I first came here that if Jeremy Bates had won Wimbledon in 1986 it wouldn't have sparked in Britain what Becker's (1985) win did in Germany and Noah's win (at the 1983 French Open) did in France, because there wasn't the infrastructure to absorb the people,' Peacock said. 'I really believe that we've now got the game into a shape; far from perfect, but at least we've got a product that we can go out and sell.

'At the very top, the signs are quite slim to make you encouraged and feel you've achieved anything,' he conceded, 'but if you look elsewhere in the game - and I'm not claiming this for me personally - I do think British tennis has changed an enormous amount in the last four or five years.

'There are 20 ITIs (Indoor Tennis Initiative centres) up and running, and next year there will be 25 or 26 around the country, where anyone can roll up and find coaching and play in modern surroundings. There are going to be 30-plus private sector centres running next year, and the clubs gradually are beginning to get their act together.

'If we look at the membership of our association, that was about 7,000. It's now 49,000. If we look at the tournament structure, there were less than 200 open events in 1986, and now there are over 1,000. We now have the National Club League, the British tour, the ratings tournaments, the junior series, and so on. And in terms of coaches and coaching, we've got an infinitely stronger team of people.'

Nevertheless, Tony Pickard, Britain's Davis Cup captain, whose coaching has guided Sweden's Stefan Edberg to the head of the game, has found flaws. 'We're doing a hell of a lot,' Peacock said, 'and we've just set up regional squads around the country, six of them this winter, for professional players with coaches. But Tony's got strong views about sifting. We've got to be more thorough. We sift about 7,000 players a year, but we're going to place greater emphasis on the sifting process, making sure that there isn't talent lurking around the country that's not being identified.

'Tony's central thrust is that because games increasingly are played on fast and true surfaces, the emphasis is going to be on physical strength, and if you haven't got it, it's going to be that much more difficult to climb the ladder.'

Until the early Eighties, when Jo Durie achieved her highest world ranking, No 5, British women could be relied upon to maintain national pride on the courts. 'There's been a huge growth in women's tennis,' Peacock said. 'If you go back 20 years, there were only a handful of nations where competitive women's tennis was strong and taken seriously. Now there are 30 or 40 nations where it's comparatively strong. Jo's a real pro. She's handled herself particularly well, in the ups and on the downs. Not all that many young girls coming through the system are quite like that.'

Academic ability accounts for some, who find greater satisfaction in going to university. 'That point is very valid. It's still in Britain more respected to earn your living by your brain than by your brawn. A university education, and the social life that goes with it, and the wide range of opportunities that open up as a career, compare very favourably really with the highly competitive life on the women's tour, and the lifestyle which goes with it, which appeals only to a limited number of young girls.

'Men enjoy competing, but the women's tour is not an ideal life for a lot of girls. I think as far as Sarah Loosemore (the British No 7 who is reading psychology at Oxford) is concerned, a life trailing round the world, playing on outside courts at two o'clock on Monday afternoon, and losing, is an unnatural life for a girl. The same applies, to an extent, to Sam Smith (the British No 4, who is reading history at Exeter), though I think Sam was concerned that she wasn't actually going to make it and had a number of other dimensions to the reason for her choice.'

There was no legacy from Virginia Wade's 1977 Wimbledon triumph. 'What followed Virginia Wade, Sue Barker and Jo Durie was the fallowest period for women's tennis there's ever been in Britain,' Peacock said. 'Our men's tennis has really had very few times when it's flickered into strong life, the Thirties being the obvious example. Our men's tennis has laboured most of the time since the war, but women's tennis has been very strong. All the girls should have been following them on to court, but they didn't.

'My answer to that would be that the people who had seen Virginia and Sue on television and said, 'Mummy, I'd like to do that,' really hadn't any opportunity to follow it through. The clubs didn't make them welcome, the local authority facilities were down and out, and the David Lloyd clubs hadn't started till 1982.'

Confident that a sales pitch can now be supported by amenities, and encouraged by the figures from the racket trade, the LTA intends to launch a marketing campaign next spring. 'Everybody loves something that's growing,' Peacock said. 'We all love a graph that's going up.' And a Graf. Is there a chance that some of the rackets will find their way into magical hands?

'If any kid at the age of 10 today has got natural ability, wants to play tennis, and is prepared to commit the sort of time and effort required to get to the top, I don't think it's the system that's going to let us down. Technique, and all the things you can coach, are fine, but it needs some individual that's got that burning desire to force their way into that top handful of players. We can help build the facilities, create the competitive structure, provide a coaching system and then try to market the game in such a way that we draw people into it. That's really all we can do.'

(Photographs omitted)

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