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Page last updated at 14:17 GMT, Thursday, 12 August 2010 15:17 UK

British tennis battles against perceptions

Clockwise from top left: Heather Watson, George Morgan, Laura Robson and Oliver Golding
Stars of the future: Heather Watson, George Morgan, Laura Robson and Oliver Golding are poised to begin senior careers after years of LTA funding

By Tim Love
BBC Sport at the AEGON British Junior Championships

It's become an annual ritual. Every year during Wimbledon, former professionals and pundits try to explain why so few Britain players are capable of maintaining a career in the world's top 100.

Journalists tasked with finding the answer often take the opportunity to quiz the world's best players on the subject at post-match news conferences at SW19.

"I was expecting one of those questions to pop up," said world number seven Kim Clijsters during this year's Championships.

"The only thing I probably notice is that we didn't grow up with the facilities that you guys have."

Clijsters was referring in part to the National Tennis Centre (NTC) which boasts 22 courts and excellent all-round training facilities, where the British Junior Championships are taking place this week.

The reality is that the media attention is two weeks in the year and these kids are working 52 weeks a year in pursuit of their goals

Iain Bates, women's junior tennis manager

It is easy to understand why the British media and public are sceptical about whether the funding strategy employed by the Lawn Tennis Association (LTA) is working. Britain has only Andy Murray ranked inside the top 200 of the men's rankings, with Elena Baltacha the sole representative in the women's top 100.

The process of selecting players for funding starts at a very young age. The AEGON FutureStars programme is made up of a group of roughly 400 promising players who range from the age of eight to 23.

Those that show the most potential are promoted to Team AEGON , a group of more than 40 players aged from 13 to 27 that are provided with full training support at either the NTC or a training performance centre of the player's choice, as well as receiving substantial funds towards travel and a range of sport science support.

After 18 months in his post as women's junior tennis manager, Iain Bates strongly disagrees with the suggestion that British juniors have too much handed to them on a plate.

"The perception is one that exists and that we're not going to change apart from with hard work, good success and the kids putting their minds to the training," Bates told BBC Sport.

A DAY IN THE LIFE OF A BRITISH JUNIOR AT THE NTC
Ashley Hewitt and Richard Gabb
0800-0830: Warm-up
0830-1000: Tennis training
1030-1130: Education with tutor
1300-1330: Warm-up
1330-1500: Tennis training
1500-1530: Weights session
1530-1630: Education with tutor
1700-1800: Recovery session

"If the media spotlight was present 52 weeks a year it would be a lot easier for everybody to understand the quality of these players, how hard they work, the level of success that they have. It's a lifestyle sacrifice. They give every minute of every day they have towards their tennis.

"The reality is we're a big federation and we do have resources but I think our job is to make sure those resources are allocated to the right players and to the players that have a chance to go on and potentially make the top 100."

The LTA chief executive Roger Draper is equally frustrated by what he sees as the meagre coverage tennis receives in Britain outside of the two weeks during Wimbledon.

"I am concerned with what is going on for 52 weeks of the year, not just for a few weeks during the summer," he said recently.

"We have got to get the message across - it is not just about who wins Wimbledon."

The life of a junior playing at the NTC is certainly a demanding one, but the accusation made by some top players such as Novak Djokovic is that the facilities make things too easy for British youngsters.

Djokovic grew up playing on limited facilities - three courts were built next to the restaurant his family owned in Serbia - and believes that British youngsters lack desire.

"If you have perfect conditions and everything you want, you get a little spoiled and you do not want work as hard as you should," he said.

George Morgan, who currently has a junior world ranking of 45 - making him second in the British standings behind Wimbledon boys semi-finalist Oliver Golding, who is ranked number 29 - disagrees with this theory.

"If you look at the training here everyone is working 100% all the time," said Morgan. "The LTA does give us a lot, and of course it helps a lot, but we appreciate it and work as hard as we can."

There are many sacrifices junior players must make in order to succeed.

"I left home at 13," added Morgan. "I stay with a host family so I don't get to see my family very often, maybe once a month if that.

"I found it tough to begin with but got used to it in the end. I can't go out clubbing because it's unprofessional and you've got to keep your mindset on tennis. There's nothing else. You've got to sacrifice almost everything if you want to make it."

The LTA estimates that 30-40 juniors are competing in tournaments each week. Recent results are promising, with the British 14 and under boys coming fourth in the World Junior Tennis Championships and the 16 and under team coming second in the prestigious European Summer Cup.

Oliver Golding

Catch up with ace Oliver Golding

The junior rankings, while not a completely reliable representation of how players will develop, are nonetheless starting to reflect the progress made in recent years.

Great Britain currently have seven boys in the top 100, more than any other European nation and second only to the United States (who have 12) overall. With Heather Watson and Laura Robson poised to leave the juniors and make an impact on the WTA Tour, the women's game is in better shape than at any other time in the last decade.

For the full impact of the NTC and the Blueprint for Tennis to be felt, Britain might have to remain patient. Britain currently have Joshua Sapwell as the fifth best under-14 junior in the world and two players - Luke Bambridge and Kyle Edmund - in the top 10 of the under-16 category.

While headlines about the LTA spoiling young players are likely to emerge again next summer, Morgan says the players will not be affected by them.

"I'm aware of the perception and a few of the players are," he said.

"We try to avoid negative comments and turn them into positives."



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see also
LTA chief optimistic about future
27 Jun 10 |  Tennis
LTA spoils youngsters - Clijsters
23 Jun 10 |  Tennis
Djokovic attacks 'spoiled' Brits
27 Apr 08 |  Tennis


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