This, it could be said, is a golden time for British tennis. Andy Murray is at the peak of his powers and has a first grand slam title under his belt and the promise of more to come while Laura Robson and Heather Watson are breaking through toward the top of the women’s game.
If Britain’s lucky, over the next few years, they could have two women inside the world’s top 20 and on the recent evidence of Robson’s performances, a woman who could threaten to win grand slam titles. For a country that has world class tennis on its doorstep at Wimbledon but which had been singularly starved of it until Murray won so brilliantly at the US Open, it is all very exciting.
But how did it happen? Were they simply born winners, or nurtured champions? Or a combination of both? Well the obvious answer is that they prospered through a combination of talent, enormous hard work and the support of families who sacrificed an awful lot for the dreams of their children.
Throughout the barren period, the country’s tennis authorities, the Lawn Tennis Association have been heavily criticised for not producing champions. The LTA has an enormous advantage over most countries in that it receives the surplus profit from the Wimbledon each year and can do with it whatever they like. In 2011, this totalled £32 million. That’s an awful lot of money.
Now there is a big school of thought that systems do not produce champions. But when countries like Spain, who don’t have a grand slam event to feed the coffers, have a stack of players, clearly Britain is lacking in something, be it coaching, facilities or talent.
It’s fair to say that neither Murray, Robson or Watson are “products” of the LTA set-up. Each of the three had parents who were willing to help financially, if they could, and in time, energy and effort. Their progress would not have been possible without that.
The LTA paid, at great expense, Brad Gilbert to coach Andy Murray and though the relationship lasted only 16 months it was the American who helped Murray begin evolving into a truly world class athlete, as well as a player.
But there is something that the LTA ought to be proud of, and quite honestly, should publicise a little better. With so much coaching expertise overseas, both in people and facilities, more and more British players realise that they need to go abroad to improve. Murray spent two years at the Casal-Sanchez academy in Spain; Robson spent two years in France at the Mouratoglou academy and Watson has been at Nick Bollettieri’s in Florida since she was 12.
Instead of shunning them, the LTA has realised that it it is worth supporting their players, even if they are not obviously working within their own system. While Murray no longer needs its help, Robson and Watson are both part-funded by the LTA through its Team AEGON system, which helps the country’s elite players. Robson received funding when she was at Mouratoglou’s and though she has since moved back to London, the LTA funding now pays for her to have a travelling coach, in Zeljko Krajan. Watson, likewise, had some help from the LTA when she was a junior in Florida and now her funding covers the costs of her coach and her LTA fitness trainer.
Unlike the USA, where the USTA does not fund players who are “outside their system”, the LTA says it does not distinguish between where a player is based, in terms of funding, even if it is received in a different method and may change, depending on their success.
Murray remains the only British man in the top 200 but the country has had recent success in doubles, with a Wimbledon champion in Jonny Marray and seven others ranked inside the world’s top 100. The success, in part, has been aided by the LTA’s Tournament Bonus Scheme, which boosts the prize money won the Challenger and ITF Tours. In the case of doubles players, their prize money is supplemented if they win a title or reach a final.
Of course the vast majority of Britain’s players, like those from any country, train at home. Systems don’t produce players. They can ruin them, but they can also help them and Britain is at last realising that they should back their players, wherever they are. It’s working.