Andy Murray’s LTA criticism was warranted, but can junior grand slam entrants be a reliable gauge for GB’s next generation? We look at the state of British tennis, the errors of the LTA and the other pathways young prospects might take.
Only a day after Great Britain’s Davis Cup triumph, when the substantial dust of 79 years of waiting was yet to re-settle, Andy Murray revealed some startling opinions. Usually a sportsman quite taciturn with the media, Murray candidly criticised the Lawn Tennis Association (LTA), the organisation responsible for the governing of British tennis. “I feel like you waste time because nothing ever gets done and I don’t like wasting my time,” he said. “I don’t know where the next generation are. They [the LTA] need to act on it now. It’s no use doing it in 18 months. Start now. It should have started before today. It’s time to make some positive changes so that things get better.”
Andy Murray’s Criticism of the LTA Was Deserved, Even if it Wasn’t Entirely True
The former part of Murray’s statement can only be wholeheartedly agreed with – the LTA is an institution riddled by inefficient bureaucracy. However the rest of Murray’s comments are perhaps guilty of oversimplifying the complex landscape of tennis in Britain.
In recent years, the LTA has been vigorously advocating a new grassroots approach in reaction to growing concerns over participation figures, but as time has passed, these promises of ‘Tennis for everyone’ have become more and more hollow. On the ground, very little improvement has been made. The impression remains of tennis being an elitist sport, partially down to the inadequate club involvement with schools; there is also still a woeful shortfall of indoor courts. Despite having similar population sizes, Tennis Europe’s 2012-13 report showed that France had three times more tennis clubs than Britain and, more pertinently, five times the indoor courts despite Britain suffering from a worse climate.
The inaccessibility of tennis is brutally highlighted by the contrasting ease of access to football. Park tennis courts, in spite of the LTA’s ‘Places people play’ initiative surrounding the 2012 Olympics, are still in a pitiful state and the park leagues have not rediscovered the verve, vigour and genuine competitiveness of the 1980s. The smooth, reassuring rhetoric and slick slogans are yet to be backed up with results.
Murray’s notion of there being no next generation is where the controversial prognosis lies. In October after Shanghai, the Scot visited the National Tennis Centre in Roehampton, only to find the facilities deserted. “There was not one person using any of the indoor courts and not one person in the gym,” he said. “I took photos of it because the place cost like £40m and there are no people.” Two weekday visits in mid-October hardly act as representative samples of the next generation’s pro-activity, does it? It’s incredible then that, amongst his globetrotting around the ATP circuit, his intense training, and media commitments, he has managed to cobble the time together to conduct a personal nationwide evaluation of tennis’ young talent. Exactly – as he himself has rightly said, “I’ve just got to concentrate on winning as much as possible”, not on anything else.
We cry out for sportspeople to speak their minds, and then when they do we endeavor to cynically dissect it. It is a painful hypocrisy, but Murray’s views in this instance are baffling. On the drought of British talent he said: “It is a shame because we always had good juniors, regardless of whether we had a load of players at the top of the professional game. It’s concerning not to have any juniors in the grand slams because that is something we were always very good at.” In his very midst there is a direct disproval of that: 20 year old Kyle Edmund. Your Davis Cup winning teammate, remember Andy?
Additionally, the correlation between players in the junior Grand Slams and the size of the talent pool is not a reliable one. Look at Jonny Marray, the 2012 Wimbledon doubles champion. His journey was certainly not one of immediate success in the junior levels, or in fact the seniors. To right the discrepancy between Britain and France or Spain in top 100 hundred players, Murray is spot on – more players need to be in amongst it at junior Grand Slam level. But to suggest that there is no talent at all coming through is to underestimate the other pathways young prospects can take, not least going straight into seniors through small ITF events. Undeniably though, it is distressing that the only concession Murray provided to this lack-of-British-talent rule was Katie Swan – based in Kansas.
It is one of Leon Smith’s – Great Britain’s Davis Cup captain – comments that bear the most truth. “There’s so much change and every time you change, you have to start again,” he said. The LTA are lacking in a consistent, coherent strategy. Each County in Britain has its own branch, between which there are great variations. The LTA also administers the title of ‘National Performance Centre’ to a select few clubs across the country, if they meet certain criteria (number of top standard players training there, facilities, number of courts etc). This is in principal a fantastic idea, for it serves to at least partially offset the London-centric nature the LTA’s placement of the National Tennis Centre naturally promoted. However the title, which enables the club to attract more players, coaches and benefit from boosted funding, never sticks – certainly from personal experience in the midlands and north east of England. As soon as a club is set to reap the benefits of their National Performance Centre status, it is prised from their grasp and gifted to another tennis centre in the region. It is utterly farcical.
Andy Murray’s LTA criticism was largely correct. Despite having been congratulated this year by Sport England with a two year extension to their funding arrangement, the Lawn Tennis Association is in need of some serious reform to take advantage of the Davis Cup success legacy. Yet the talent pool coming in cannot be judged on a superficial glance at the junior grand slam entrants. There are other routes to the top – not least via the American University system, as John Isner and Kevin Anderson respectively took. We do need to proceed with care though. Once Andy Murray retires, Britain does not want to be waiting another 80 years for their next success story.