Ahead of the Rio Olympics, in the whirlwind of optimism around British Tennis, there lies a stark reality.
Andy Murray fell to the ground in elation. The Great Britain Davis Cup world champions were immediately down onto the clay with their talisman. The sound of British fans’ jubilation reverberated around that now forever-cherished court in Ghent. Maybe it was the acoustics, or maybe it was the speakers of my budget ‘Digihome’ television, but the cries of joy had a strained edge to them. It was if, by screaming louder, the systemic problems of participation and investment facing British tennis would disperse into the Ghent night sky. It is a damning indictment that amidst these revelries, the man at the very centre was still under no illusions.
“I feel like you waste time because nothing ever gets done,” Murray said of the Lawn Tennis Association, extricating himself from the hysteria. “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. It should have started before today.”
The LTA campaign ‘Places people play’ was launched in tandem with the Olympics to reignite the verve and vigour park tennis had in the 1980s. Emblazoned on the organisation’s website were the words: “our focus is to support participation growth.” Yet the accessibility of tennis remains a hopelessly acute problem, and many park facilities are anachronistic eye sores. There’s nothing that quite says ‘Come and play!’ like a dismal slab of tarmac that resembles the M1. The LTA’s slick, alliterative slogans are yet to yield results; the Murray legacy is at stake.
British tennis has also hardly been financially deprived. Under previous Chief Executive Roger Draper (paid a healthy £400,000 a year), the LTA was given £26.8 million in 2009-13 from Sport England. This was in addition to the £30 million pay-day from the Wimbledon surplus. With this money in hand, the LTA dutifully set about diminishing participation figures and ‘places for people to play.’ In January 2012, MP Meg Munn claimed that “the number of tennis courts has declined in the past 10 years from 33,000 to only 10,000.”
Staggeringly then, when funding from Wimbledon diminished in 2015, the LTA’s first reaction was to freeze investment in local club facilities. The £40 million National Tennis Centre in Roehampton, described as ‘deserted’ by Murray and Edmund in December, has become the centre of British tennis’ erroneous investment. No wonder the likes of Murray, Konta and Watson have chosen to seek training abroad.
Despite Davis Cup glory, the success of two brothers from Dunblane is hardly evidence of British tennis’ progression; in fact it is creating a smokescreen that is obscuring the reality. Although Kyle Edmund and Dan Evans have infiltrated the top 100, their matches in low-level ATP events in far-flung regions of Asia are hardly going to grip the nation. As Murray’s words suggested, interest will plummet once he is gone. But with the failure of the LTA to increase participation at grassroots level, it seems that Murray mania will forever be a legacy never built upon.