Monday 22 June 2009

Despite Andy Murray, we’re still rubbish at tennis!

Wimbledon begins to today, and the whole country is waiting to see if Andy Murray can become the first British men’s winner since Fred Perry in 1936. With Raphael Nadal pulling out through injury, he’s now got an even better chance, but you’ve got to say that Roger Federer is still the overwhelming favourite. Even if Murray does manage to win, it isn’t going to change the fact that we’re still rubbish at producing world-class tennis players in this country

I know that every year before Wimbledon the same discussion is raised as to why we fail to produce top level tennis players. The ridiculous thing is, I’ve been listening to this debate now since the first year that I ever watched Wimbledon, and that was back in 1985 when a 17 year old Boris Becker won the title for the first time.

It means that in period of almost 25 years, we’ve only produced two homegrown players that have looked like they could seriously win Wimbledon. At the moment it's Andy Murray flying the flag, before him it was Tim Henman. Overall that's a depressing statistic!

For sometime now I’ve thought this country’s attitude to tennis is slightly bizarre anyway. For 11 months of the year nobody really cares about tennis, it's essentially a minority sport.

Then for one month of the year tennis suddenly becomes almost our national sport, with everyone following Wimbledon, kids stop playing football for while and start playing tennis on the streets and in the parks.

A week or so after Wimbledon finishes, everyone moves on, and our interest in tennis comes to an end for another year.

Surely one of the main reasons we’re not successful is that if we're being honest, we’re just not that bothered about tennis. We certainly don’t have enough people playing the sport, particularly at junior level, but then most kids only opportunity of seeing tennis is at Wimbledon once a year.

I’ve always been typical of most British people in the sense that watching tennis has always mainly been about watching Wimbledon, and maybe the last few rounds of the French Open, but over the last year I’ve made real effort to watch some of the other Grand Slam tournaments. It’s been refreshing to watch tennis outside the context of Wimbledon.

I watched the US Open final last year in which Murray was defeated by Federer. In January this year I watched the Australian Open. I was great to watch a tournament where the crowd were so passionate and partisan, especially when any players of Greek, Serbian or Croat descent were playing. It was an enjoyable contrast to the slightly reserved occasionally stuffy tradition of Wimbledon.

I suppose the point I’m trying to make is that tennis needs to be seen as an all year round sport - not just two weeks in June and July. Kids need to be able to appreciate the game away from Wimbledon.

Secondly we always have the classic argument that tennis in the UK is too elitist and middle class. There's still some truth in this but being middle class doesn’t necessary prevent you from being a world-class sports competitor.

In English Rugby there are many players who have come from very middle-class backgrounds and it didn't stop England reaching two World Cup finals in 2003 and 2007. At last year's Beijing Olympics, Britain won a whole host of gold medals in rowing and sailing, which are hardly, sports that the average person takes part in.

The real problem is still the fact that not enough people play the game and we lack facilities. Having done some research into this, I came across a statistic that said that in France they have 6,000 indoor courts, in the UK we have just under 1500.

Along with the lack of players and facilities, there’s also the cultural view of tennis in this country. As a sport I don’t believe that we take it seriously enough. Tennis is seen as a leisure activity and not a serious competitive sport in which to take up and become a winning professional.

Reading some message board comments on the BBC’s website on an article written last year on this subject, it was amazing to hear the number of people who had previously been members of LTA (Lawn Tennis Association) clubs as juniors but were made to feel unwelcome or forced to vacate courts in order to accommodate middle-aged middle-class members who were only playing the game for leisure.

Is it any wonder that we struggle to produce any decent players when so many juniors are made to feel unwelcome at clubs, and are not given the opportunities to play the game on a competitive basis.

I hope that Andy Murray does manage to win Wimbledon this year, but we’d be kidding ourselves if we think it proves we have the infrastructure and culture to produce top quality tennis players. We don’t!

The LTA spends so much money trying to produce more talent, but fails miserably. It doesn’t matter how much money they spend, if people aren’t really interested or don't have opportunities to play the game we're going to have the same disappointing results.

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