The state of British tennis reached the House of Lords earlier this week with Labour peer Baroness Billingham offering her opinion on why the country, despite considerable investment, seems unable to produce a grand slam champion or more players who might at least join Andy Murray in competing for the sport’s biggest titles.
The Lawn Tennis Association has its problems as an organisation. That much is true. The lofty targets for players in the top 100 set by chief executive Roger Draper when he took over in 2006 were ill-thought out and self-defeating; it tends to panic when criticised and it is far too reactive. Reported salaries of the top brass, if true, seem excessive placed alongside the performance of the top players. There is little transparency when it comes to salaries. Current investment of around £42 million per year (from the Wimbledon surplus, AEGON sponsorship and Sport England funding) does deserve to be scrutinised.
Naturally, a couple of the newspapers who would love nothing more than for Draper to fall on his sword, picked up the report with glee. But – and it’s a big but – the Baroness’s comments don’t stand up to any kind of serious questioning.
It would have been nice if she had seen the irony in her whingeing about LTA profligacy to a small group of unelected peers, most of whom could probably barely give a toss as long as they can play tennis whenever they like at their local club (if they even play).
But more worryingly, she used (some would say abused) her position to make a series of claims that were largely inaccurate. Her “facts” were poorly researched; a claim that the number of public courts available to play on in Britain had shrunk from 33,000 to 10,000 in a decade was wildly wrong. (It’s difficult to put an exact number but it’s estimated to be nearer 22,000) The newspaper headlines she cited about the ire of the British press towards the LTA were actually reflecting on the performance at Wimbledon and yet in the next breath she lambasted the LTA for focusing on elite performance instead of grass roots.
Grouping the British press together was a mistake – they don’t all think in the same way and the LTA is an easy target when British players have a bad Wimbledon. In any event, how ridiculous is it that British tennis and the LTA is effectively judged by two weeks on grass every summer?
The Baroness said the LTA get its money, including its Sport England funding, with no strings attached and no accountability. She knows that’s not true. She used incorrect figures to illustrate her points. That’s wrong. She said the world’s press is aghast at the ineffectiveness of the LTA. Ask the Americans and the Australians if they think their governing bodies are better, or if they care about British funding.
There are, of course, plenty of reasons for optimism within the British game and its grass-roots programmes are actually decent and show signs of bearing fruit, in the long run at least. Britain has had three junior grand slam champions in the last four years; its women are doing far better than for a generation and in Andy Murray, it has a man who could win grand slam titles. In men’s doubles, seven Britons are in the top 100. Baroness Billingham should know these facts and the good that these initiatives are doing but they were ignored in her speech.
Baroness Billingham is entitled to her point of view, of course. But using erroneous facts to back up her argument is irresponsible behaviour. People may have read her comments and believed them to be true. And having criticised the LTA for spending taxpayers’ money through the Wimbledon surplus (which is not true, anyway), calling for a government inquiry is ridiculous and surely a true waste of taxpayers’ money.
The fact of the matter is that if Britain had, say, five men in the top 100 and competing for grand slam titles, other nations would be looking at the British set-up and wondering if that was the way forward. In general, systems rarely produce champions and though the LTA has plenty of problems, it would be far better to concentrate on the good things it is doing and ignore the carping.