Why Britain cannot find a tennis champion

A tennis coach and player looks at why Brits are the eternal losers of the international tennis scene.

Dan Travis

Topics Politics

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During this year’s Wimbledon, I kept asking myself two questions: why did only one British male, Andy Murray, make a minor impact on the tournament, and why were British women so dire? What has happened to British tennis?

The fact that it took the victory of British 14-year-old Laura Robson in the Wimbledon girls singles competition to stir the passions of a nation showed how low the expectations of the national tennis establishment have sunk. The great John Newcombe’s explanation of what is wrong with Australian tennis players rings true for British players, too. He told the BBC: ‘When they are training they think they are giving 100 per cent but they are only giving 60.’

I have been a tennis coach in the UK for 15 years now and I keep making similar criticisms to Newcombe’s, but find myself constantly accused of being ‘stuck in the past’ or of being ‘too motivated by winning’.

In my experience, there are three factors contributing to the failure of British tennis players on the international scene. Firstly, young tennis players in the UK are not as fit and not as determined or single-minded as their southern and east European counterparts. Second, the tennis bureaucracy in the UK is not able to tackle and overcome particular, negative sentiments held by its predominantly middle-class membership. Third, the competitive player base is shrinking.

The elite tennis players that I have helped and observed in training are skilful and technically proficient. The problem is that they are neither pushed nor encouraged to push themselves hard enough. They rarely train to the point of exhaustion and an regrettable ‘stop when you’re tired’ attitude is ubiquitous.

Spanish tennis offers an inspiring contrast. From the moment they step on court, Spanish tennis players start to work hard. At the end of gruelling physical sessions, Spanish players have to be stopped by their coaches. Their attitude to failure is noticeably different, too: they do not seem to be bothered by it. If they lose a point or are not playing in the way they want to in a particular training session, they will carry on regardless.

This attitude to the game could not be further from the British one. As a professional coach, I ‘hit’ with high level junior players and one of my biggest frustrations is how they tend to go on a downward spiral of sulking if they are not playing perfectly; their ‘failure’ continually affects them instead of spurring them on to learn from their mistakes and do better next time.

This attitude can be found in the coaching world as well. In the past, if an elite player approached a coach we would assume they could already play. The coach’s attitude would have been: ‘We can work on the mental approach and your competitive side but you are expected to give 100 per cent.’ We would not have to put up with tantrums, mood swings or the whole plethora of bad excuses that is now used to explain away youthful inconsistency and poor performance.

Moreover, the role for coaches has been expanded to include personal support for issues which have nothing to do with tennis. As well as being physical and technical coaches, we are now expected to act as psychotherapists, social workers and motivational self-help gurus. This new coaching approach is wholly endorsed by the Lawn Tennis Association (LTA).

Aside from running Wimbledon, a world-class tournament, one fortnight a year, the LTA is a national joke. But, except for during Wimbledon, the LTA is rarely in the spotlight and its monumental failures are not subject to any significant media or public pressure. In addition, the inevitable one-off wins for those British players outside the world’s top 200 who are given ‘wild card’ entry stave off criticism of generally woeful under performance. The LTA is still able to wheel out the same tired excuses and reassurances that ‘things are improving at a grass roots level’.

Instead of producing world-class elite tennis players, the LTA, as other members of the new ‘sporting bureaucracy’ in the UK, like Sport England, has imposed draconian restrictions on volunteers and coaches. Under the guise of ‘professionalisation’, the LTA introduced licensing schemes for all coaches as well as mandatory attendance on child protection and health and safety courses. Alongside this, the LTA deploys a rigid and secluded coaching structure. The LTA dislikes the Spanish coaching system – and just about any other successful system in the world. The LTA is the self-appointed governing body of tennis – and everyone has to toe the line. Despite a woeful track record, it still monopolises the training of elite players and will not let anyone else in, except by their own appointment. Coaches’ licenses are withheld and one simply cannot take part in training elite tennis players if one does not adhere to everything the LTA dictates.

Paradoxically, the LTA should be all too well aware of the shrinking competitive player base in the UK. In 1998, an audit of UK tennis was conducted and steps were taken to improve participation, particularly amongst children. In the 10 years since, the number of children actively participating in tennis on a weekly basis has fallen from one in eight to one in 20. Membership of tennis clubs in the UK has fallen dramatically as has the competitive player base. Alongside sports such as athletics, the number of competitive tennis players has dwindled to the extent that the number of tournaments and competitions held has been drastically reduced. Without the week-in-week-out competition of leagues and tournaments, the critical mass of competitive players falls. This statistical appraisal in the Independent newspaper demonstrates the problem: ‘Now compare the number of clubs in Britain (2,400, down from 5,000 a decade ago) with the number in France (10,000). France has one million licensed adult players and 500,000 licensed juniors. Britain has around 100,000 licensed players in total and the LTA says there are only a few thousand juniors regularly playing competitive tennis (20 or more matches a year) at any level.’ (1)

That children and adults are now encouraged to play tennis as a ‘healthy activity’ has contributed to stemming the tide of adults leaving the game. This trend has also been seen in the massive increase in the number of those who now consider themselves to be ‘runners’. Unfortunately, the increase in numbers of participants simply does not equate to a rise in the level of elite performance. It is what one is participating in that will raise the standard not just the ‘taking part’.

That we cannot produce a championship winning British tennis player is a loss because it fails to inspire and sets a limit on the ambitions of young players. The therapeutic and holistic approach to coaching will continue to inhibit the self-discipline intrinsic to excellence and achievement. My advice to British tennis players is to ignore the LTA, work very hard physically, be brilliant on court, and learn to play in Spain.

Dan Travis is a tennis coach and director of the Brighton Salon. He is the author of a Manifesto Club Thinkpiece on Competitive sport

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(1) Wimbledon 2001: The culture of British tennis at break point, Independent, 25 June 2001

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