Why we must copy French to reach our tennis nirvana

John Inverdale
THERE is something intrinsically rather dull about sporting governing bodies. They exist, they govern, they succeed or they don’t, and if they don’t, they carry on governing come what may.

So as the interview process continues for the new head of the Lawn Tennis Association (LTA), demonstrations demanding a dynamic, vibrant change of direction in the way the sport is run, have not surprisingly been conspicuous by their absence outside the House of Commons. Some bloke (probably) will get it, and so long as Andy Murray hangs around, he can paper over the cracks.

To be in France at the moment for the second Grand Slam event of the year, is to witness a kind of tennis nirvana that Britain can only dream of. Every day, French players in big matches on show courts. Twenty nine in the two singles competitions, not by dint of wild card hand-outs but on merit. In Murray’s absence, Britain had not a single player in the men’s draw for the first time in two decades, and our three representatives in the women’s singles all fell at the first hurdle.

One of the first things that needs to be addressed is the player identification scheme, which palpably has failed to work. Selecting someone at too early an age, funding them, then hoping they will bridge the chasm between junior and senior tennis, is a flawed manifesto. The French model, whereby dozens of young prodigies compete year on year in a dog-eat-dog environment means only the strong survive, either through desire, necessity, or simply because they’re better.

More importantly though, the principle that a sport will thrive because one or two stars at the top of the game will generate a surge of public interest and participation is clearly not applicable to most tennis nations. Where are all the Swiss youngsters inspired by Federer? Nowhere. The French success is based on a bottom-up model that means the base of the sport is secure, through player numbers and facilities. The new LTA boss has to give the clubs the financial clout to encourage the next generation of players, who, late in their teens, may realise that tennis is their future.

The average age of the men in the last 16 at Roland Garros is over 28. The days of missing the tennis boat by your mid-teens have long gone. It is strong foundations that beget a wide and successful pinnacle.

So while it is wholly understandable that a job vacancy at Roehampton induces a collective yawn, it actually matters a great deal. Or we will never savour a British presence at Wimbledon in the way the French have become accustomed to in their clay-court paradise.