Wimbledon 2011 is underway and we must brace ourselves for the British players’ predictable early exits. Andy Murray’s successes have been a welcome distraction, but Roger Draper’s first five years as chief executive of the Lawn Tennis Association have failed to address the lack of strength in depth.
When challenged to come up with suggestions for improving the situation, former British number one Tim Henman is inclined to target the players rather than the LTA. “The Lawn Tennis Association have been the first to admit that there have been things that they have done okay, and things they have done poorly,” he said recently. “Whatever. At the end of the day, we’re in an individual sport, so why do all our players rely so much on the LTA? If they don’t think that the LTA is very good, or they don’t think that the LTA has good coaches, and if they don’t think that the LTA has good facilities, then that’s fine. But it’s not about the LTA. It’s about the individual. How come all these players from many other countries, with far less financial backing, all become players of quality? And the answer to that is very simple – because they have the hunger and the desire to do it.”
Henman was not a direct beneficiary of LTA funding. His career was the product of a scholarship scheme involving financier Jim Slater, former Davis Cup player David Lloyd and Reeds School. “I haven’t had the most to do with the LTA, and Greg [Rusedski] really didn’t either,” Henman explains. “And you can debate what degree of involvement Andy [Murray] had. But why haven’t there been other players, who, irrespective of the LTA, have made themselves players? Some of them aren’t good enough. But there have been enough that have been good enough, but they haven’t had the hunger and the desire and the determination and the drive to make it happen.”
If Henman is right about the players taking personal responsibility for their careers, and I believe he is, how should the LTA spend the annual Wimbledon surplus? How should its priorities be redefined?
For a short period before the appointment of Roger Draper as chief executive, the LTA was inclined to turn down elite player support in favour of community-based funding. But when Draper arrived, we witnessed the Wimbledon surplus being swallowed up by the recruitment of Brad Gilbert, Paul Annacone, Carl Maes, Peter Lundgren, Steve Martens et al on lucrative contracts. £40 million was lavished on the new National Tennis Centre at Roehampton.
It’s a cause for concern because a geat deal of promising work had been in progress before Draper took over the helm. Mini Tennis had been launched. Better links between schools and local clubs had been forged and indoor tennis facilities were springing up all over the country. Since then, there has been a funding drift, away from grass-roots infrastructure, towards the pampered elite so disparaged by Henman.
No doubt the British obsession with producing a Wimbledon champion is a source of some amusement around the globe and the LTA is understandably sensitive about it. Nevertheless, it’s perverse to throw money at indolent under-achievers when there are potential champions out there who will never get an opportunity to wave a racket.