What’s next for British tennis?
In the early part of this decade, the likes of Andy Murray and Laura Robson were making waves in tennis.
However, with Murray’s career now tailing off after injury problems, where is British tennis heading and will we need to wait a further 70 years for another grand slam victory?
Great Britain’s Davis Cup win in 2015 was one of the highlights of Murray’s career, with GB winning the competition for the first time since 1936.
Without the three-time slam winner and double Olympic gold medallist fighting so hard for every point across the doubles and singles matches, GB wouldn’t even have reached the final.
But where is the new Murray as the old one edges closer to retirement following his latest round of hip surgery?
There have always been problems in cultivating the raw talent of young tennis players in the UK and turning them into champions.
Too much choice?
One reason for this could be the number of sports that are accessible to British children. At high school in Scotland, I played not only tennis but, football and dabbled in rugby and boxing.
If British youngsters were able to focus on one sport instead of many they would be able to refine the skills that are needed to be successful at tennis. Murray and younger sibling Jamie started playing at around the age of four and tennis was their focus.
Another big issue is cost. For example, to rent an indoor court in Edinburgh – and it needs to be indoor because it rains a lot in Scotland – for an under-16 is £7.50 an hour. The only indoor courts that are owned by the council are six miles from the city centre and are hard to get to by public transport.
Such factors don’t help Scotland’s search for the next Murray, and young players across the UK – particularly those from poorer backgrounds – face similar problems.
Who do you play against?
Murray moved to Spain at the age of 14 so that he could compete against some of the best players in his age group. Among those he faced as a teenager were Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal.
But in Britain, the national tennis centre is in Roehampton, an expensive suburb of south-west London.
Can the Lawn Tennis Association realistically move the best young talents away from their homes in their early teens and coach and train them at this facility?
Yes, but it remains an under-utilised resource because of its location and the financial costs of accommodating these future stars.
Spain has one of the best youth tennis set-ups with high-quality academies around the country, constantly pitting the most talented youngsters against each other.
There is no surprise that they generally have at least 10 male players in the top 100 at any given time.
Tennis on TV
The LTA has launched various initiatives in recent years with the aim of capitalising on Murray’s success and International profile.
The Scot has inspired thousands of children to pick up a racquet and give tennis a go. But there is a problem in maintaining their initial enthusiasm.
Tennis on TV has increasingly become something you need a subscription to watch. Wimbledon continues to be screened by the BBC but other events have migrated to Sky Sports and, more recently in the case of the US Open, Amazon Prime,
If the UK wants to produce more top players, tennis surely has to be more accessible. British kids can’t fall in love with a sport they can’t see.
Other players carrying the torch
Murray has not been doing it all on his own in recent years. For starters, brother Jamie has won several grand slam titles as a doubles player.
Laura Robson, the winner of the Wimbledon Junior title in 2008, looked on course for the top but has only played a handful of matches since 2016 after wrist and hip surgery.
Heather Watson is another player who seemed destined for great things but has been derailed by persistent poor form, whilst Johanna Konta’s issues with building on her Wimbledon and Australian Open semi-finals have been well documented.
In the men’s game, Dan Evans is rebuilding his promising career after a drugs ban, but he turns 29 in May.
Kyle Edmund needs to show more consistency after reaching the Australian Open semi-finals in 2018, whilst Cameron Norrie is another British prospect expected to make an impact.
Women’s singles also have some exciting prospects with Katie Boulter and Katie Swan having impressive starts to their careers, with 11 ITF titles between them.
British tennis may yet have many happy days to come. Norrie and Edmund have grand slam potential, while Boulter and Swan can capitalise on the fluidity at the top of the women’s game.
But if Britain is to have further success, it is going to have to enhance the way it develops players from a young age.
Photo by Carine06 via Flickr Creative Commons under licence Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)