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Flying the flag for British tennis

Andy Murray is the only British player left in the singles competition
Murray is left flying the flag in the Wimbledon singles in 2009

By David Ornstein
BBC Sport at Wimbledon

Wimbledon 2009 saw British tennis equal its worst collective performance at the All England Club in the open era.

The gloom may have been lifted by Andy Murray's heroics but of the 11 home singles players in the main draw - nine of whom were granted wildcards - nine were eliminated in the first round.

In the junior event, seven of the 20 singles entrants - 16 on wildcards - made it through to round two but none past round three.

The Lawn Tennis Association is one of the richest sporting bodies in the country but, with just two singles players ranked inside the world's top 100, it has come in for some fierce criticism.

BBC Sport spoke to LTA player director Steven Martens, who masterminded Belgium's transformation into a major tennis power and has the unenviable task of doing the same with Great Britain.


Q: How do you reflect on the British showing in this year's singles?

"I was bitterly disappointed with our results but more so by the negative reaction that followed. Many people in Britain seem to think tennis is a two-week sport and they judge our players and the LTA solely on what happens over Wimbledon fortnight. That obsession is wrong and it has to end."

Q. Has the reaction affected the players?

"Of course. Year by year people pour another few spoons of negative energy into our players. It's really not helpful, it's doing them a lot of damage. This negative attitude, for which I blame sections of the press, results in a lot of our players struggling much more than they normally would in a world that is already stressful enough."

Q: Do you consider nine out of 11 first-round exits to be a failure?

"No. When I saw the draws that we had I knew it was going to be very tough to get a lot of players through to the second round. Only two Brits got through but all of our players behaved really well, fought really well and some came very close to winning and to causing major upsets."

Q. Surely coming within one defeat of your worst ever collective performance at Wimbledon is not a sign of progress?

"At both main draw and junior level all of our players have improved their rankings and are continuing to do so. Admittedly, in the next two years we will not have a group of four or five men who are able to play in the main draw by their own merit but with the girls that is possible. I know people want immediate progress and, in their eyes, immediate progress means being close to Andy Murray but realistically we know that is not going to happen overnight. Andy Murray is not the benchmark, he is the exception."

Brits round-up

Round-up - Brits struggle on Day Two

Q. So there is hope on the women's side, but what's wrong with the men?

"The women have been able to feed off each other's progress. They were all ranked just outside the top 200 and when Anne Keothavong moved into the top 100, players like Katie O'Brien, Baltacha and Mel South thought 'we can do that too'. On the men's side it is totally different. Firstly, the difference between Andy Murray and the others is way too big so they can't relate to him. Secondly, we must be patient. The average age for players in the top 100 on the men's tour is 26 and Josh Goodall is 23, James Ward is 21 and Dan Evans is 19. We don't have too many men who are in the phase where you tend to see players enter the top 100 but in one or two years they can make that transition quickly."

Q. Is it not just a case of the men not being good enough?

"It might be partially down to their talent but it is also down to the overall strength in depth of the men's game. With respect to the women, getting through in men's tennis is more difficult because the number of players who play really well is much higher. We might not have the most talented men out there but there is no reason to give up on guys who are 21 or 23 when we know that the average age in the top 100 is 26."

Q. What hope in there for British tennis in the short-term future?

Laura Robson is the great hope for British women's tennis
There are high hopes for teenager Robson

"Andy Murray is the best British player in the open era. He is a potential world number one and a potential Wimbledon and multiple Grand Slam champion. A player like Laura Robson will rise fast. She is arguably the best female junior in the world and the fact that we were gutted when, at the age of 15, she lost narrowly to Daniela Hantuchova, a top 30 and former top 10 player, on her Grand Slam main draw debut says it all. In Anne we have a woman who is close to the top 50 and there are a few others close to breaking into the top 100. Many other countries would do anything to be in our position.

Q. None of the 10 Brits in this year's boys' singles reached the tournament via their ranking - eight were wildcards and two came through qualifying. With only one of those boys reaching round three, is this another generation lost?

"Absolutely not. We have a big pool of 16 and 17-year-olds and we've got to work with them for four or five years before we will know if they've got a reasonable chance of being close to the main draw at Grand Slams. The majority of our boys were playing older opponents so losing in the second round is not a disappointment - it's good progress."

Q. Can you not tell now if they are going to be a success?

"The only players who really stand out at this age are the exceptional talents - Roger Federer won junior Wimbledon when he was 17, Andy Murray the junior US Open at the same age. But just because you lose in the first or second round of these tournaments it doesn't mean you're a failure. We're only going to invest in players who have all the credentials to go far and with the physical, nutritional and sports science work that now takes place you've got players still competing at the top level up to the age of 30. Of the 256 players in the main men's draw and qualifying for Wimbledon this year the vast majority were over the age of 21, so we're not going to give up on a 17-year-old just because he's not a Federer or a Murray."

Q. Why are Great Britain so far behind countries like Spain, France and Russia?

"With those countries we're not talking about an approach, we're talking about a culture. For them, tennis is one of the high-level sports but here it is below football, rugby and cricket - I want us to redress the balance. In rugby and cricket we're only competing against a relatively small number of countries so we're good at them and that automatically attracts a lot of interest from kids. Tennis is played in almost every single country. To get really good at tennis it needs to be embedded in all levels of society and that's exactly what we are trying to do now."

Q. How is the country going to do that?

606: DEBATE
flyingkidney

"We have specific initiatives in place and we are working to get more access for more people to play, whether that's in parks or schools. We aim to put a racket in the hand of every child going to school and then build up the links between schools and clubs so that skilful and enthusiastic kids are brought into a tennis club and can continue in the game. We now have a huge talent identification network in place and junior competition is our biggest priority. We are doing everything in our power to make sure that kids of all backgrounds are able to compete and then using our talent ID structures to ensure they do not slip under the radar."

Q. Haven't the LTA been saying that sort of thing for years?

"When I arrived from Belgium in 2007 there was no systematic approach in place at all. We are now investing in all aspects and at levels of the game, whether by supporting our older players, supporting our young and upcoming players or supporting our British coaches. When you cover all of the elements it will get results in the end. But we must give it consistency and time. Everyone talks about the amount of money the LTA has but money doesn't guarantee success, it simply allows us to do everything we can to support our current players and do everything we can to lay the foundations for future success. In Belgium we started a far less advanced version of this structure in the early 1980s and it took 10 years to get results. I know people don't want to hear it but the big plea is for patience. It will pay off."



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see also
Murray suffers semi-final misery
03 Jul 09 |  Tennis
What hope for junior Brits?
25 Jun 09 |  Tennis
Crisis - what crisis?
25 Jun 09 |  Tennis
LTA threatened with funding cut
25 Jun 09 |  Tennis
Murray ignores hype ahead of semi
01 Jul 09 |  Tennis
Murray reaches doubles semi-final
02 Jul 09 |  Tennis
Robson reign ended by narrow loss
01 Jul 09 |  Tennis
Bogdanovic faces wildcard threat
24 Jun 09 |  Tennis
Murray stays cool to win opener
23 Jun 09 |  Tennis
Baltacha win lifts British gloom
23 Jun 09 |  Tennis
Six Brits lose on disastrous day
23 Jun 09 |  Tennis
Wimbledon: Live map
22 Jun 09 |  Tennis


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