There are a lot of questions being asked this Wimbledon fortnight. So far, we’ve seen the worst set of performances from British players in living history as one by one, barring Baltacha and Murray, they crashed out in the first round. True, our views could all change if Murray satisfies over-hyped hopes and delivers a place in the men’s singles final next week – or better still, wins the title outright. But even so, for a sport with millions of pounds available to produce a British champion, how come there are so few home-grown players to cheer about?
Well, here’s a thing that seems to have bypassed the Great British public – possibly because the media pays so little attention to anything not jumping up and down under its nose. Whilst waiting 70+ years for a male British tennis star to head the international rankings, we have, by and large, ignored our superstars in the sports of squash and badminton. Give or take a bit of jaw-dropping when badminton’s Nathan Robertson and Gail Emms wowed Olympic watchers five years ago, nobody has taken a blind bit of notice as British squash and badminton players have flown the flag. Did you know British squash players have held the World No 1 spot in both men’s and women’s singles rankings in the last 10 years or so? Or that we currently have three men and three women in the world top 10? Scroll down through the world’s top 50 in either gender and the ranking list is littered with English and Scottish and occasionally Welsh players.
British badminton players have a tougher time of it – the sport is massive in China, Indonesia, Malaysia and, funnily enough, Denmark, millions of people play it fanatically worldwide, but even so, we have three men and three women in the world top 40 singles players’ rankings, a men’s pair at world No 10, a women’s pair at No 20 and a mixed pair at No 7, it would be higher but Gail Emms retired last year.
You can bet your last penny of lottery funding that either of these sports’ governing bodies would be thrilled with an annual £20m coming into the coffers courtesy of the world’s biggest tournament – the reality until recently has been they’ve managed to deliver champions on a fraction of that. Badminton has just secured £20m-worth of funding – but that is for use over a four-year period. What’s more to the point is both sports are managing to attract British youngsters and keep them interested in playing until they reach the top of the tree. Is there a lot of prize money at stake here? Lots of sponsorship deals to be made? – er, no. But something keeps these players returning to the courts, to their training regimes and their coaching routines. Anyone who thinks tennis is more gruelling than either squash or badminton hasn’t seen them played properly. A shuttlecock can reach speeds of up to 200mph – that’s mid-rally – a squash ball? Up to 170mph. Don’t tell me there are not enough tennis courts for keen kids to play and practise on – in the vicinity of my son’s school there are six – you have to travel five miles to get to the nearest squash or badminton court – where, by the way, you’ll find even more tennis courts to play on. Whether keen kids can get on to them is another matter, but they are there. For my part I think money is the problem, not the answer. There’s too much self-interest in tennis and not enough gutsy go-getting.
While I was watching my youngest son’s tennis coaching session from the car recently, (he’ll never make anything more than a social player, but he’s keen and I’m happy to fork out £50 a term to give him a lifelong hobby) Radio 5 announced that Andy Murray’s physio and fitness coaches are paid for by the LTA. The local coach reacted with disgust, as well she might, when I told her.
“What I’d give to have some of that money here,” she said, surveying the handful of enthusiastic, but not very good, 11-year-olds who’ve been attending her weekly fun sessions for more than a year. Whilst I watched she invited the two football-loving boys who had spent the previous week pressing their noses up to the wire fence to come and hit a few balls in exchange for a bit of ball-boying. They were far better than the kids they joined – naturally talented with good hand-eye co-ordination. And that’s where at least some of the answers lie. I pay for my son to have lessons not because I think he’s going to be lifting the Davis Cup in 15 years’ time, but because he likes it and I’m a middle-class mummy. I’d be only too happy to see the talented footballing two-some offered free coaching because the tennis association has realised it needs to get the right kids involved at grass roots level if it wants to turn out champions. In two weeks’ time, the footballing talent will have gone back to what it knows best. Wimbledon’s media spotlight will have been switched off for another year and tennis, by those two boys, at least, will have been forgotten. But it needn’t be so.
Tennis could look to the nation’s successful sports, badminton and squash among them, to see why kids who have natural sporting talent are not choosing to step on to a tennis court. If the answer is they can’t get the opportunities then the whole sport of tennis, not just the LTA, has to blame itself for failing to produce world-beaters.
Either that, or sports writers need to look for sports that are delivering British champions to find their headlines. I think I know where they could start…
© Sandra Fraser