Monday, 23 June 2008

Anyone For Tennis?

Britain's new national tennis centre has
received a mixed response from players
and coaches alike

I ate a bowl of strawberries and cream this evening, which can only mean that Wimbledon has started. Or that Sainsbury’s had them on special offer. Either way, they were ok, but as is the case with all British fruit, they were just not as sweet or inviting as the continental stuff. The same is true of most of our tennis players; not that they are bitter (although I’m sure a lot of them are), but rather that they are just a little disappointing. I do not wish to write another article centred totally on the failings of British athletes, so I will pick on the ex-athletes. Like Tim Henman. The Prince of over-hype and under-achievement decided last year that he had perhaps put the British public through too much pain and chucked in the towel. It is exclusively within the domain of British tennis that any half decent player can hang up his boots, or plimsoles, and sit back, relax and to wait for the inevitable call from the BBC. There are so few successful pros that tennis on television simply must contain every single one of them. Or at least, that is the only way they can hope to justify the inclusion of ‘Tiger Tim’ on this year’s Wimbledon coverage. You could ring out more charm from a used sweat towel than from Henman and his strange, gormless smile. He promised before the tournament that he would prove to the nation that he possesses a sense of humour, although his insistence on entering Wimbledon each year with the hope of winning revealed this years ago.

My hope is that they will break him in gently by plonking him on some outside court to commentate on ball girl vs tennis ball machine on the ill-conceived ‘BBC interactive’ service, where it is poossible to simultaneously watch pictures of nine tennis courts with their rain covers on. When there is play, being given a choice in this way can be counter-intuitive; I remember last year being completely unable to choose between two live matches, flicking feverishly from one to the other until I had lost the plot of both and said bollocks to the whole thing, returning instinctively to the comforting default position on the sky box that shows non-stop Top Gear.

The great news this year is that they have finally shelled out for a new scoreboard on the centre court. It was long overdue, and must be a relief to its sponsors Rolex, who have been lucky to stay in business by associating with the local railway station standard of the previous one. I think the new colour display even has the facility to play back pictures of Cliff Richard singing in the rain, which bizzarely the BBC seem to find infinitely fascinating.

As for the sport itself, in recent years the men’s draw has been dominated by the world’s only famous Swiss man, with Roger Federer taking the honours in five consecutive tournaments. The final has been contested for the last two by the oxymoronically floppy haired yet ferocious Spaniard, Rafael Nadal, who has only relatively recently learnt how to play on grass, on account of his lack of practise due to the rain falling mainly on the plain in his native Spain. The women’s game on the other hand is harder to call, mainly because of the frightening quantity of super talented blonde girls with an ‘ic’ at the end of their names that are emerging from behind Europe’s old iron curtain.

And so to British hopes. Or hope. The ever petulant Andy Murray will be hoping to avoid injuring his nostril hair, little toe nail or whatever it was that kept him out of contention in the last tournament so he can be free to shout, swear and generally disgust his opponent into submission. Good luck to him I say. ‘Tiger Tim’ could have done with a bit of Murray’s Scottish beligerance in his playing career. The only emotion we got from him was the now famous clench fist motion he performed after a particularly crucial point, which always looked more like he was very constipated. The thing is, Andy Murray is actually quite good, and is only 21 so has some time before his career reaches its peak. This is in stark contrast to Henman, who didn’t so much peak as continue on a semi competent plateau, and was arguably prevented from climbing to the top of the metaphorical mountain by the constant gale force wind of public expectation that blew him back down again. Hopefully, unlike deluded football fans, tennis enthusiasts will have learnt not to pin such unrealistic hopes on our current number 1, and just let him get on with it.

Incidentally, Murray’s brother Jamie is rather good too, and actually won the Wimbledon mixed doubles title last year, although in my eyes doubles tennis doesn’t actually count. It’s tennis’s ‘special’ younger brother, with learning difficulties but a ‘real zest for life’.

The figures reveal for themselves how far behind the British lie in terms of competitive tennis players. France and Germany, two comparable countries in terms of affluence, population and climate, have 15 and 12 players respectively featuring in this year’s men’s draw, and Britain a measly 4. The same goes for the women, with only 5 due to turn up for a battering. Interestingly enough, I cannot name a single female British tennis player. Come back Sue Barker, all is forgiven.

The only conclusion that can be drawn is the lack of available coaching at grass roots level. Tennis has long been the domain of the upper middle classes, with club snobbery ensuring that cash, rather than talent, be the deciding factor in membership. It means simply that there is no talent without coaching, and no coaching without cash. As for tennis in schools, everyone knows that the courts only exist to provide a place to conduct fire drills, and from memory, rarely even have nets.

Funding is a real problem too. Every time I see British athletes fail at something, my mind is cast back to a wonderful segment of a documentary that was aired just before the last Olympic games. It charted the progress of two similar athletes, both swimmers. One was from the UK and the other from Australia, and in a similar situation to Rocky IV, the Australian had wires protruding from him and was plugged into about five beeping machines whilst he trained in a specially climate controlled glass box. Whilst his every movement was being charted by a computer to highlight any minute areas for improvement that might shave a thousandth off his personal best, our guy was in a public pool in Luton with his trainer pulling along what looked like a fishing lure on some wire through the water for him to chase. This, the Olympic hopeful revealed, was the full extent of government funding for the swimming team.

Given that we are hosting the games in the not too distant future, should we not throw some cash behind finding and training the very best athletes? Not necessarily becuase we want to win everything like the Americans, but instead because it is almost guaranteed that in 2012, London’s infrastructure, transport system, crime levels and cost of living will be embarrassment enough, without our athletes showing us up further...

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