Tennis: The misjudged sport of Great Britain

Roger Draper needs to change the LTA's way of progressionMajor success in tennis seems to have avoided Britain for many decades now. In the four major grand slam tournaments, the Australian Open, the French Open, the US Open and Wimbledon, a British player always seems to fall at the final hurdle which has been the case far too often for a sport which should call Britain its home.

The last major win for any British player was thirty-three years ago, when Virginia Wade won the Wimbledon Championship in London in the female singles event. Sue Barker, in 1976, won the women’s singles at the French Open. This period of time included many big names in the female game, but this domination has now faded away. In 1936, Fred Perry won the Wimbledon men’s singles title, coincidentally being the last time any male has won a major grand slam tournament for British tennis.

For too long has British tennis been lost behind the other nations of the world. For a country that boasts the creation of tennis, much pride has been lost over the years and tennis has slowly fallen out of favour as a sport. Therefore, all blame is often pointed at the leading organisation in British tennis: the Lawn Tennis Association (LTA). However, is the LTA all to blame for the state of British tennis? There are many issues that can be considered and not all of it falls onto the LTA, but they could certainly do a lot more to reverse the plight of British tennis. There are various reasons as to why people do not play tennis and why those who do seem to constantly fall at the final hurdle. A lot of this is due to lack of awareness, ignorance and a lack of support in the right areas and the problem should certainly be addressed.

Tennis is not well publicised, despite the fact there are a huge number of clubs in every region of Britain. The LTA does not do enough to publicise tennis as a sport, especially in comparison to sports such as football and rugby.

Roger Draper, the Chief Executive of the LTA, stated that by the end of 2008, ‘the target was to have half a million juniors playing by the end of 2008 and five players in the top 100.’ However, by the end of 2008, Britain had only one player in the top 100 and only 12,000 juniors were on the British Tennis Membership database. However, by the summer of 2009 there were 23,000 which does show an increase but Britain is still very much far behind the other nations such as Spain (50,000) and France (80,000). These are very disappointing figures, and it is only a bonus that the only male for Britain to be ranked in the top 100 is Andy Murray. It seems clear from this information that tennis is not publicised enough by the LTA and they do not do enough to encourage more youngsters into tennis. Whether it needs to be leaflets being posted to every household or free open days held by local tennis clubs, it must be done. Even if it comes to the point where television adverts have to be used, then they must, for tennis is not being noticed enough by the youngsters of Britain and Britain is falling heavily behind the other nations of the world.

The main reason as to why most children do not get involved in tennis however, is not the lack of publicity in my opinion – but ignorance. It is often the common belief that tennis is ‘only for posh people’ or is simply seen as an elitist sport by too many. This has been the case for the entire existence of tennis and it is a very sad predicament for the sport to have fallen into as it is depriving the sport of many people who could help bring it back into the limelight in Britain. Many people shun tennis, mainly due to the derivation and ethos of The Wimbledon Championships, the yearly tournament most commonly known as simply Wimbledon.

This is the only real time in Britain that tennis is really displayed on the national scene and when you compare it to the amount of advertising that sports such as football and rugby receive, it is very poor. When Wimbledon is commonly being described with traditions that include ‘the eating of strawberries and cream, drinking Pimms spritzers, royal patronage, and a strict dress code for competitors#’ it is no surprise that tennis has this reputation in Britain. I completely understand as to why tennis is viewed like this when the only real type of visibility for the sport comes in only this one tournament. Since tennis is being viewed by a large number of people in only this occasion, people will believe that this is the case.

The LTA need to do more to portray tennis as a sport for everybody, as not enough people believe this. This sounds like a very stereotypical way of describing things, but it is true, and no amount of political correctness will sweep this truth under the rug. The majority of this country feels intimidated by this atmosphere of culture that is created by tennis and the excessive over-extravagance of the Wimbledon tournament only fuels this now raging fire destroying the foundations of the sport.

The LTA needs to act on this matter and make the sport more publicised to people other than those who have bigger wallets and the right background. Rather than spending the money on already known players, it should be spent on encouraging tennis in deprived areas. This could be building tennis courts in areas which lack them, funding free-coaching for those who cannot afford it, giving out free equipment or even simply changing the ethos of British tennis by stopping this elitist attitude that plagues it. What Mr Draper states about British tennis is true, the majority of people who play tennis are not at all brought up in this way. However, the majority of the nation does not see this and it leads to situations where ‘the upper class’ seem to dominate the sport at different tennis clubs. It is making people aware of what Draper has suggested above which is the problem and if it could be announced across the hilltops of the entire country, then it would be a huge breakthrough for tennis.

Spring Lane Tennis Club does exactly this across the town of Colchester. Upon forming in 2007, they created a ‘Schools Outreach Programme’ where all 84 state primary schools in Colchester were given the opportunity to welcome the coaches to the school for affordable or free tennis lessons. The club states that ‘4 schools in low-socio economic areas were chosen for free tennis lesson’ and all other schools are charged one pound per child for each lesson. This then led to over three-hundred new children visiting the tennis club in the school holidays for lessons. If more clubs and other institutions initiated ideas such as this then the sport can become much bigger than it is today.

The issue regarding money is another key reason as to why people are not getting involved in the sport. Tennis lessons can reach up to five-hundred pounds a month depending on how important you regard the sport. In this day and age, this figure would need to double, if not be higher in order to accommodate the requirements for building a player that could even turn professional – unless they are incredibly gifted. Yet other nations, who on average, have much lower GDP figures per person when it comes to income, can perform a lot better on the world stage. This is because tennis is regarded as one of the national sports in the country, much like how football is for Britain and how baseball is for America. The cost to play tennis in Britain is an immense amount even for those who earn more than the average amount in Britain and it is for this reason that tennis development is hindered.

By proving to these people that tennis is not a pompous sport, it has enlightened many children and has got them involved in an activity that would normally never cross their minds. This is down to making it cheap and affordable for those who cannot afford lessons with the local over-priced coach. Imagine if a similar project to this was proposed by the LTA nationwide? It could potentially lead to thousands upon thousands of children picking up a ball and tennis racket which leads to a huge chance of Britain becoming a huge fighting force on the tennis scene. It seems clear after a large amount of reports coming from many different representatives of the sport, including seasoned professionals, that the LTA do not do enough to support the building of British tennis. The evidence posed by Overend, the BBC’s Tennis Specialist, clearly shows how nobody at the LTA wants to take a stand and bite the bullet in order to boost the prospects of tennis. The fact that Great Britain was relegated to the third tier of the Davis Cup, a highly regarded international tournament, is clear evidence for this failure of the LTA. Britain was knocked out by a team that did not have one player ranked in the top four-hundred of the world rankings.

However, in defence of the LTA, they pump a lot of funding into the development of tennis, but mainly for those who have already been discovered. Andy Murray, ranked number one in Britain, has developed fantastically well in the men’s game. He is on the verge of winning his first major title and is consistently winning various masters events every year. He reached the final of the US Open and narrowly missed out to Roger Federer a few years back and is constantly finding himself on the cusp of major titles every year.

The LTA are also assisting the development of young Laura Robson, who has already turned professional in the women’s game with Anne Keothavong also following suit as the only top one hundred ranked British female. Extensive training programmes as well as top of the range facilities are available for these players. For example, the LTA spent forty million pounds on The National Tennis Centre based in Roehampton to be used by the professional tennis players of Britain.

Neil Harman, tennis correspondent for The Times, states that: “It provides so much. The A La Carte menu – if Gordon Ramsay was in there, he’d love it. But the fact is you’re not going to build tennis champions on Frappuccinos.” This statement by Harman is true in my view. The LTA have done incredibly well in order to assist the development of the current British professionals, but they have forgotten about the basic requirements. With no reasonable amount of British talent coming through the ranks, this sort of money should be spent on players who are showing incredible potential in tennis, in order to increase the amount of players making the world top one hundred from the mere two that are in there today. Although the LTA are doing a lot for tennis, they are in my view, not using enough funding in the right areas, which is a problem that needs to be addressed.

It is clear that tennis in Britain needs to be revamped. Many view it as an elitist, upper class sport which is too expensive for everyone to be a part of. This is a sad way for the sport to develop, as it is not the truth. Tennis is not controlled by the elite of Great Britain and tennis is not a sport that should be affordable to only those with the largest bank accounts.

The LTA clearly need to follow in the footsteps of other smaller local clubs who help make tennis a more popular sport and they need to find ways of reducing the cost to a more reasonable amount. If those who sit behind the desks in the Wimbledon headquarters of the LTA opened their eyes to the problem that tennis faces, rather than simply hiding their heads in a bowl of strawberries and cream, maybe we would see more and more people enjoying the sport and not just when Wimbledon takes place for two weeks every summer.

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