The net post tilts at a 45-degree angle. The January rain and wind whip across the potholed tarmac. Teenagers swear as their football disappears through the rip in the wire mesh fencing.
In three months’ time, a weak sunshine will penetrate Britain’s permanent grey lid. Paunchy bank managers and solicitors will dig out their single Babolat and prepare for a season of American tournaments, rain-blighted barbecues and drizzled-out league fixtures.
Back in the 70s, the kids in the clubhouse would have cursed the voting down of the ''junior priority’' court at the Annual General Meeting—but these days there are plenty of spare courts. And the club got an LTA grant. New clubhouse, new facilities. So now the plasma TV is always on and they can watch Manchester United thrash Chelsea with their mates.
The fact that Andy Murray, a Scotsman, lifted the US Open trophy last year barely registered across much of the UK. England has a population of around 53 million, while there are five million Scots. The feud never really ended with the disemboweling of William Wallace.
Middle England will never forgive Scotland for winning the race to the first men's grand slam title since Fred Perry in 1936.
Tennis and Great Britain have always been strange bedfellows. We run the most prestigious tournament on the planet, yet if tennis participation was measured on the Richter scale, ours would be a mere speed bump in the road. The wind, mist, and rain batter our defences daily, yet the idea of indoor tennis largely passed us by.
Fred Perry, Andy Murray. Why the three-generation gap? How long have you got? In days of yore, it was snobbery. Tennis was for the elite, as advertised by the summer Pimm’s party at Wimbledon and presided over by an organisation known as the Lawn Tennis Association. Today, it’s the LTA. But we all know what it stands for.
Today, the LTA stands for building from the top down, even though there’s no real bottom to reach. According to The Telegraph, national participation in tennis officially stands at over 400,000, figures derided in the same article by commentator and coach Nick Lester as '‘box-ticking’'. He said, “Clubs are signing up these kids who might just play four or five times as part of a summer camp. It’s all part of a numbers game, but I don’t think it’s doing anything to address the real issues.”
One of those issues is the widely reported £640,000 salary of LTA Chief Roger Draper, which includes a £200,000 bonus. Yet the BBC reports the number of people playing tennis once a week fell from 487,500 in 2008 to 445,100 in 2012. That’s the time between Murray making the US Open final and winning it.
Worryingly, MP Meg Munn declared in parliament that, “the number of tennis courts has declined in the past 10 years from 33,000 to only 10,000”.
Not that British tennis is poor. Sport England continues to pump in millions and the Wimbledon fortnight generates another £30 million every year for the national game. According to The Telegraph, the LTA’s latest set of accounts showed a payroll of around 300 people, at a cost of £11.5 million.
It seems like the LTA has simply given up on building a broad base for the tennis pyramid, opting instead for trying to sharpen the pointy bit. Nowhere does this hold truer than in the building of the £40m National Tennis Centre in Roehampton, London.
Launched as the '‘flagship’' of the LTA’s performance plan, the centre has received stinging criticism, not least because 16 of its 22 courts are outdoors. Says Mark Petchey, TV commentator and former coach of Andy Murray, in The Guardian:
"The national tennis centre will not be the reason why Britain produces top-100 players, because basically the kids will have to have been produced somewhere else to come to the national tennis centre. The LTA haven't been producing them under the current structure, so why, when it hasn't happened before, is it suddenly going to happen when you've got a national tennis centre? Where are the players going to come from to fill it?"
Tony Hawks, the actor and comedian, agrees. A former county champion, Hawks runs the charity Tennis For Free, whose patron is Murray’s mother, Judy. He told The Telegraph:
“If participation really is your top priority, I would have thought that a model to deliver tennis free to people in local parks, and to prevent courts from disappearing at an alarming rate, ought to be your starting point.
When the LTA put £150,000 into developing Bishop’s Park in Hammersmith, they didn’t seem to realise that two other sets of courts in the area were closing. I think it's more important to target people who live in council blocks, to bring new blood into the sport, than to build slightly better facilities for the people who already play.”
With all this going on in such an alien landscape, it’s little wonder British tennis has struggled to keep its head above the rising waters. But there are more fundamental problems.
Tennis will always take a back seat in a country obsessed with football. The overwhelming majority of Britons are working class. That means cloth caps, pints of ale, a contempt of the ruling government and somewhere to vent their anger on a Saturday afternoon.
The partisan nature of football fits the bill perfectly. British Sky Broadcasting (Sky) realised this and pumped millions into the game, cornering the market in satellite TV subscriptions and brainwashing the masses along the way.
Even though much of England’s Premiership football is of dubious quality and over-ridden with foul play, it’s not going to go away. For the majority of the populus, tennis crosses their radar once a year, for two weeks, at an English garden party that few in this increasingly blue-collar society can identify with.
Luckily, Britain remains a nation of eccentrics who succeed despite the LTA system. Impeccably connected ATP top-tenner Tim Henman was a product of the David Lloyd Slater Squad. US Open finalist Greg Rusedski was, no delicate way to put this, Canadian (albeit with a Yorkshire mum). And Andy Murray was groomed in Spain. Even 1977 Wimbledon women's champ Virginia Wade learned to play in South Africa.
You wonder what the future holds. At some point in the next five years, Murray will take his aching patella off into the sunset. The rain will carry on falling, the number of players will continue to drop, LTA cash will still go who-knows-where, and football will still fill our screens.
But somewhere in Birmingham or Glasgow or Leeds, some obstinate kid saw the look of incredulity on Murray’s face that September day in New York and decided that, by God, he’d be next. You can only hope.
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