YOU’RE A WASTE OF TIME
Hours after Davis Cup heroics, Andy Murray delivers a damning verdict on clueless body running British tennis
It had all started so well. there they were, all in a row, Great Britain’s victorious davis Cup team. Officials of the Lawn tennis association looked proudly, paternally, on. Yes, the occasion had been made possible by the efforts of one man, a renegade who had rejected the Lta’s nurturing from an early age, but they were not going to let such trifles interfere with this glorious day. here was a great British triumph and none could deny it.
then Leon Smith, Great Britain’s davis Cup captain, mentioned the word ‘legacy’, and like a five- setter against Novak djokovic it all began to get away from them a bit after that.
the problem with legacy is that it requires a plan and the Lta seem to have scared up a new one of those every other year, without much success. Changes at the top have brought changes at the bottom, in coaching and structure, and wildly contrasting views on the way elite performance is achieved.
the result has been a decline in participation in the key schools demographic — all research indicates that unless a person plays before the age of 14, he or she is unlikely to participate regularly in later life — and a disconnect with elite competitors, so the £40million National tennis Centre in Roehampton is frequently left idle.
there are very few British juniors of substance emerging and a genuine fear that the jolt the sport should receive from the success of andy Murray and the rest will be squandered, much as the Rugby Football Union failed to capitalise on England’s victory at the 2003 World Cup.
It was in this climate that the officials of the Lta looked on benignly, oblivious to the approaching storm as talk of legacy gave way, inevitably, to a question about how this could be achieved.
Specifically, how the man of the moment would go about ensuring his inspiration allowed a fresh connection to be made between the sport and schools. By the end of what turned out to be a 16-minute crisis forum-cum-state of the nation address, the Lta must have wished they had spent more time rooting for Belgium.
the players stopped short of saying they had won it despite those in charge of British tennis, but they didn’t stop short of much else.
‘I went to the National Centre to practise for a couple of days after a tournament in Shanghai,’ said Murray. ‘I was there on a Monday at two or three o’clock, and then on tuesday at the same time, and there was not one person using any of the indoor courts and not one person in the gym.
‘I took photos of it because the place cost £40m and there are no people. No players practising, nothing going on at all, like empty. and, you know, it doesn’t necessarily have to be performance players involved but to have nothing is such a shame, to walk in and find nobody there.’
It was a remarkable press conference, a complete free-for-all by the end. Players would interrupt each other to share their views of the Lta’s many failures and while Murray undoubtedly took the lead, as he does on court, his team-mates provided resolute back-up. When Smith pointed out Kyle Edmund was probably the last graduate of the National School to receive Lta coaching — that system was scrapped by chief executive Michael downey and performance director Bob Brett, recruited from Canadian tennis, although Brett has since departed — the davis Cup rookie was no less outspoken about his experiences.
‘I have spent most of my time at the National tennis Centre,’ said Edmund. ‘It is pretty much my base when I go back to the UK — but there are no players to hit with.
‘When you are just one person in a centre, or one of just a couple, it is no good. It is healthy to have players around, it makes a good atmosphere, it is good for the spirit and for the game as well. It is something that should be backed.’
Smith, an Lta employee and, as a coach, the one member of the team whose focus is beyond the selfish individual, was perhaps the most damning witness of all.
‘there’s so much change,’ he said. ‘and every time you change, you have to start again.
‘When we had a squad at the NTC, it was something you could attach younger players to and there was at least an environment which people would drop into. Whether it was these guys or those ( ranked) between 200 and 500, who hit the ball well and could spar with everybody, as long as they worked hard it served a purpose.
‘that certainly would have helped a good 14 to 16-year-old. It was the decision of Michael and Bob to move that on and now we’ve got a new performance director in Peter Keen, so that’s another listening period to go through and strategy to unfold.
‘Over the last eight years I would guess £25m has gone into junior programmes, but maybe it is spread too thinly because it has not worked and there are no juniors.’
Jamie Murray added: ‘We went to the US Open and in the last two years there has not been one British boy playing.
‘Considering the success andy has had, I’ve said it a million times: it is a shame that he has done such amazing things in his career and for tennis in this country and you could get somebody else who has the chance to do what he has done.
‘But, unfortunately, it does not seem that way — it is not happening or looking like happening. that needs to change. We have got a good chance to make the most of it. We have the opportunity to make tennis really popular here.’
‘I don’t know where the next generation are,’ chimed andy. ‘I feel like I am saying “I don’t know” a lot but I genuinely don’t. It is a shame, because regardless of whether we had a load of players at the top of the professional game, the juniors were never a problem. We always had good juniors. We had junior No 1s, we had juniors competing for Grand Slams on the guys and the girls side. Now it seems that isn’t happening.
‘Katie Swan, I think, is a good young girl but there are not loads coming through. It is a bit concerning not to have any juniors in the Slams. Bringing them on from junior to senior was our problem — but now we don’t even have the juniors. It is not ideal.’
It most certainly wasn’t for the Lta, who couldn’t even claim much credit for Swan, now 16 and based in Wichita, Kansas, roughly 4,500 miles away from the deserted, open plains of Roehampton.
It only remained for Murray to play the verbal equivalent of the lobbed winner that finally brought team Belgium to its knees on Sunday, which he did when describing conversations with chief executive downey as a ‘waste of time’. ‘Nothing ever gets done,’ he added. Game, set and match.
It may be that performance director Keen will come up with a plan to revolutionise British tennis — much as he did British cycling — although for now Murray, among others, remains sceptical.
When the Lta can react to a first davis Cup victory in 79 years by banning the Times photographer from yesterday’s media activity, to better control its image and images, one has to wonder about the brains at the top of the organisation.
Still, no doubt its official shutterbug got plenty of lovely Lta reaction shots to Murray’s ‘waste of time’ sideswipe. Now, what to go with for the website, gentlemen? Open mouths, or heads in hands?
SUNDAY 4.40pm What a difference a day makes! Crashing back to earth: they were joyful celebrating Davis Cup success but (from left) Kyle Edmund, Andy Murray, Leon Smith, James Ward and Jamie Murray were the Glums as they slammed the LTA in yesterday’s press conference