Can we be serious? (Part Three.)

Gary Burns takes a look at Wimbledon and British tennis past, present and future and asks if we can host the finest Grand Slam why can’t we win it?

Seven years or so ago a young lad came back from an under-14’s tennis tournament in Spain. He’d lost to a Majorcan boy in the final. When his mother asked how he got on upon his return, he fumed, “Do you know who he trains with?!” She couldn’t offer an answer. “… Carlos Moya.” And who do I practice with? My brother.

The young lad was, of course, Andy Murray – the British number one now (arguably at 21 years of age still a young lad.) The Majorcan was Rafael Nadal, now blazing a Borg-like trail, especially on clay where he recently dismantled current world number one and arguably best player of all time, Switzerland’s Roger Federer. Carlos Moya is a former world number one and the elder statesman among a group of Spanish players – Juan Carlos Ferrero, Fernando Verdasco, Feliciano López, David Ferrer, Albert Costa, and more recently Nicolas Almagro – who’ve been practically omnipresent in the latter stages of big tournaments and Grand Slams for years now. For the record, the brother was Andy’s older sibling, Jamie.

Andy Murray has, quite rightly, been identified as a potential winner of Wimbledon but – honestly – that’s just missing the point! Just as he was at 14, he’s out there on his own – in this country and within the LTA he is peerless in terms of talent and the potential to win, win, and win some more. Immediately after the disappointment of losing that junior tournament he, with the help of mum, Judy, planned ahead. At 15 he departed to train at Emilio Sanchez’s highly-regarded tennis academy in Barcelona. Almost irrefutably the experience turned him into the player he is today. His slightly older brother, Jamie, stayed on with the LTA and while he managed to emulate Jeremy Bates mixed doubles triumph just last year at Wimbledon (with the help of Serb Jelena Jankovic) – it’s likely to be the first and last time he overshadows little brother on the world stage.

So, here we are, presented once again with an unruly perm and unmistakably Celtic roots. For a mere kid he is his own man and, as the LTA found out recently, not afraid to speak his mind. It appears they are to be haunted by the kindred spirit of McEnroe. Though if you are going to be haunted you could do a lot worse. Not only does he resemble Mac (in a loose sense) physically – he acts a bit like him too. Emotionally, sometimes a little too close for comfort; certainly for a conservative group like them. Though he falls short of the four-letter tirades and umpire-baiting that Mac the Mouth used to engage in – he’s been a bit of a brat, granted, but he’s no ‘Superbrat’. Stropping and flopping around the court like Harry Enfield’s Kevin the Teenager was Murray at his most irritating. A side of his character and court persona he appears to have outgrown; naturally, as he’s left his teens behind and moved into his twenties. Even during his interviews he has an almost relentlessly stern calmness about him; it is uncannily like McEnroe.

More encouraging, however, is that he plays like him. An absolute natural. His touch play is deft and for one so young he has a mesmerising range of shots at his disposal. His volleying and net play are also immensely impressive for a player who can sit just as comfortably at the back of the court and grind out an accomplished baseline game. With forehand and backhand he hits crosscourt winners at ridiculously acute angles and his anticipation of his opponents play – and movement to deal with it – is perhaps the single-most imposing weapon within his armoury. His drop shot is delicious and can be delivered from just about anywhere on the court.

If there is a weakness it’s that the effectiveness of that drop shot sees him overuse it on his bad days. On occasion he has appeared physically exhausted at relatively early stages of important games; this would appear to be a combination of factors. Murray’s tall and possessed of a fairly gangly frame. At times earlier in his career he resembled, not so much McEnroe, but a baby giraffe. He looks to have filled out now. As a result he shouldn’t be so susceptible to the minor injuries that have stifled his development. No doubt affecting his ability to train and build the stamina reserves required to compete for three, four or five long sets of top-class tennis. In truth, he looks ready to step up.

With grass arguably his favourite surface, Wimbledon 2008 could be the defining year of Andy Murray’s career and potentially the beginning of a new chapter for British tennis and the LTA. Perhaps it’s time for ‘Murraymania’ possibly ‘Andymonium’ to supecede ‘Henmania’? We should leave Henman Hill to Tim though; after all Murray’s Mound isn’t nearly as catchy. Before we get too excited though we’d do well to remember that British tennis is still founded on principles that can only be described as unstable. And could easily contrive a situation where the aims of Murray and the LTA appear at odds with one another?

His recent criticism of the LTA in the press and in his somewhat premature biography Hitting Back, showed he – again like McEnroe – is not afraid to clash with authority. His criticism centres on the vast expenses that coaching incurs. LTA chief executive Roger Draper chose to fudge the issue by pointing out that Andy Murray’s own time with Brad Gilbert and the £750,000 a year they paid for it made him a chief beneficiary. Murray had in fact already conceded that he’d benefited when they picked up the tab for Gilbert. It was his decision to dispense with the American’s services and finance his own training.

He also wrote that someone “in authority in British tennis” needs to admit that Britain is “doing really badly” as a tennis nation. For his part, he probably just wishes there was somebody with whom he could hit a few balls, apart from his brother or Tim Henman – when he’s not mowing the lawn. You can sense his frustration and it’s wholly understandable but Draper and his LTA president Stuart Smith simply never saw Murray coming, his self-imposed exile took care of that. They hadn’t legislated for him in their plans and are well-placed enough to know that you cannot fudge an answer to that accusation. So they didn’t even try. They’re both fairly new to their jobs after a much-needed bloody coup at the LTA in 2006 and are actually showing ominous signs of coming up with a cohesive plan going forward.

Their focus, is where it should be, the future of the game: the ‘Blueprint for British Tennis’ the result of Draper’s exhaustive consultations during his first six months in the job. The document includes a raft of measures that sound suspiciously like common sense. The previous 51 jargon-filled ‘performance indicators’ have been replaced with three: to get players in the world’s top 100; to put as many 14 to 18-year-olds as possible on track to reach the top 100; and to have as many juniors as possible competing regularly. These new indicators have drawn criticism that they will ignore grass roots tennis and there will be no one cultivating the kids to come through the system. Draper though insists that the the vastly simplified targets are merely one of the two main aims for his organisation: “One is to grow the game, getting more people picking up bats and balls; the other is to make sure there is a system or structure in place so that talent can come through.”

Draper has also engaged with long-standing critics of the LTA; the likes of David Lloyd, former player turned entrepreneur, Tony Pickard, coach of former Wimbledon champion Stefan Edberg, and Sue Mappin, one of the most dedicated administrators involved with the game at community level. He’s confessed to being shocked at some of the feedback from those meetings: “Decisions were being made based on anecdote and shaggy-dog stories. There was no clear, fact-based approach, and, you know, there are some clear facts that actually work. Profiling on talent ID, rather than trusting to chance, which, in essence, is what happened with Andy Murray. Andy worked bloody hard, had fantastic parental support and did all the right things, but in a way did it outside the system.”

You get the impression that he’ll be working outside Draper’s system for most of his career. An accomplished talent – and arguably world class having beaten the likes of Federer on the tour – at 21 he is no longer a priority. There’s nothing wrong with that as long as he receives all the support he needs. The coaching set up at the new £32M National Tennis Centre in Roehampton is undeniably world class. Likewise the sports science and physiotherapy facilities, if they could only jet in some foreign practice partners, to go with the expensive foreign coaches, he’d be all set? As Draper suggests, Murray has come through simply because sheer talent and ability wouldn’t allow for any other outcome. If the LTA can right the wrongs of the past – while Murray fulfils his enormous potential – there’s a chance we can be as serious about playing tennis as we plainly are about hosting it.

Mr. Gary Burns

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