29 June 2008

Tennis in the UK

It's mid-June so the UK papers are talking about tennis again. The stories are much the same every year just before Wimbledon: the poor state of the game in Britain, and what does the LTA do with all the money it gets from Wimbledon. And the current picture is bleak, as after years of promises from the LTA that things were getting better, Britain has the lowest number of men in the singles draw in the 131 year history of the championships, with two wild cards, one qualifier, and Andy Murray.

The LTA gets much of the blame from journalists, and although I have done my fair share of criticising them, it is naive to think that if only they used the millions they get from Wimbledon more effectively everything would be all right. Despite frequent comments to the contrary, very little money is spent on tennis development in the UK, and the £25M that the LTA gets from Wimbledon does not go very far when just one relatively small indoor tennis centre is likely to cost over £1M. It is estimated that to build the 5,000 indoor courts we would need to catch with where France are now would take £1.2 Billion. France has seven times as many indoor courts as we have in Britain, but Britain's need is greater because France has better weather so playing outside all the year round is a more practicable proposition, particularly in the south. In France and Germany local government apparently pay for some, if not most, local facilities, but in my experience local authorities in the UK have very little money for new facilities and, in fact, mostly struggle even to maintain the facilities they do have.

So what are the reasons for the moribund state of tennis in Britain and the failure to produce top 100 players? Having in the recent past been chairman of a tennis club as well as serving on a county committee, there is no doubt in my mind that the root of Britain's problems with tennis lie in the private clubs. Most people who play regularly are members of private clubs, but the predominate culture of these clubs is one of social tennis (invariably doubles) played by middle-aged if not elderly members. Coaching, juniors, and singles play are tolerated at best, if not actively discouraged, and the typical tennis club environment is not conducive to tennis development. There is, of course, nothing wrong with social tennis (it is what I play myself) and the fact that tennis is a game you really can play from 8 to 80 years old should be a selling point when encouraging people to take up the game. The problem is that this form of tennis dominates everything else: the smaller clubs (4 courts or less) which are the most common in Britain, do not have enough courts to offer different tennis activities concurrently, so the prime playing times tend to be for social doubles, league matches (also doubles) and maybe some casual play.

Clubs typically have a range of members from under 10s playing mini-tennis, older juniors, juniors who are strong enough to play with adults, strong players up to county standard who are too good to play in club sessions, and the social doubles players who form the mainstream. The committees of tennis clubs are generally dominated by social players (juniors and their parents typically have no votes at all), and it is the committee that generally does most the work in a club, so it is not surprising that they generally want the club run to suit their needs. All to often young players graduating from the junior sessions just stop playing when the only tennis on offer is doubles play, frequently with players much older than themselves. Also once players are too old for junior tournaments most clubs have very little too offer. The stronger players are usually too strong to play in club sessions, even if they want to play doubles, and there are relatively few adult tournaments. I would estimate that more than 95% of players stop playing between the ages of 13 and 21; many more would stay in the game if clubs could offer tennis sessions targetted for this age group.

Tennis (and other sports) can be thought of as a pyramid with a broad base of beginner/improvers and younger juniors at the base, and nationally ranked players at the peak. You need to be in the top 100 of world ranked players to get entry to the top division of tournaments, and currently Britain has one player in each of the men's and women's top 100s. Because of this tennis gets poor coverage in the press and on TV except, of course, for Wimbledon fortnight. Britain desperately needs more people to be playing tennis and more competing in tournaments at all levels. Having spent many years helping to run junior sessions at my club, as well as organising an LTA ratings tournament, I know it is not difficult to get juniors to start playing tennis. The problem is keeping them playing and getting them to enter tournaments. There are around 15,000 juniors playing competitively at present, which is very low compared to the leading tennis nations. To get more juniors playing tournaments we need a more accessible tournament structure. A typical junior ratings tournament is played over a week, during the school holidays. However this usually involves parents taking time off work without necessarily knowing their child will play on any given day. I spent a lot of time encouraging juniors to enter tournaments with little success - when I asked why they had not entered local tournaments the overwhelming reason was that parents simply could get them to the event because they could not take the time off work.

If these are the problems what is the solution? Solving the problems of tennis in Britain is not easy, in fact I do not think we have any real chance of getting to the level that France and Spain are now - we are simply too far behind. I believe that the LTA should give up hoping that the large majority of clubs in Britain will ever play a significant role in tennis development. What is needed are some new clubs formed with a different ethos: clubs which cater for those wanting to learn or improve, to play singles in preference to doubles, and who want to compete. In short we need tennis sports clubs as an alternative to tennis social clubs. We also need a completely re-vamped tournament structure based on one or half day tournaments, at least for the beginner and entry level juniors. I would suggest short tournaments based on one set matches, initially on a round-robin basis, and with everyone starting and finishing at the same time. My experience of running such tournaments at my own club was a dramatic increase in participation levels. I believe it would be possible to get 50,000 or more juniors competing regularly simply with a more accessible tournament structure.

In summary we need some singles-orientated sports tennis clubs with an emphasis on coaching and competing, and an accessible tournament structure to attract many more players to compete regularly.

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