Every year in June the British press becomes hysterical when the first week of Wimbledon rolls around. Every year a player is chosen to be the first Brit since Fred Perry in 1936 to win the competition. And every year it doesn't happen. But why such a decline? We launch an investigation, taking in private clubs and sugary drinks along the way...
As Wimbledon approaches, British viewers can't escape it. Every year, they get to see the same advert for a partner brand of the tournament. Its name? Robinson's - a famous fruity soft drink. The video features a British toddler who, thanks to the benefits of this magic potion, grows up to be Wimbledon champion a few years later. “Our champions continue,” naively says the voice-over. “We are proud to be part of this legacy.” But what legacy are they talking about? Apart from Murray at the US Open last year, no British player has won a Grand Slam tournament in the Open era, and Murray (still), is the only British player to feature in the ATP top 100.
For Patrice Hagelauer, performance director at the British Lawn Tennis Association from 1998 to 2002, this contradiction is a matter of culture. “Britain has invented tennis, but we didn't invent a sport; we invented a hobby. A way of being in society: in England we play a doubles match as we would play bridge,” he says. “British people love tennis. But they like to play tennis in relative comfort.” On the 2,000 clubs or so in the country, the majority are private. How to become a member? You better have some money set aside. “The clubs have no local or territorial funding like in some other European countries, and so cater to adults, who are the only ones able to finance them,” says Yannick Noah's former coach. “The competition aspect is really not valued and, hence, young people turn their backs on the sport. Children's development? This is often the part that earns the least and that costs the most.” Around £40 million, to be exact. This is the amount that the Lawn Tennis Association (LTA) has finally decided to put on the table to train the best kids in the country. How? By building a brand new national tennis centre in Roehampton, in 2007, with 22 courts, a hydrotherapy centre and food menus worthy of a three-star restaurant.
“Our young champions are too pampered,” says Neil Harman, a reporter for the Times of London. “You don't produce champions with shots of Frappuccinos.” In their defence, Patrice Hagelauer points as a natural factor as obliging as it is obvious. “In Britain, there's the problem of the climate. And the English climate is a disaster! All these clubs operate nine months of the year on indoor courts,” says the former coach of the France's Davis Cup by BNP Paribas team. “And where you have two indoor courts in England, in Spain and Australia you have 20 outdoor courts per club. The playing time is extremely small in England, so the children play a lot less. Hard courts facilities are horrendously expensive. This forces the clubs to be self-financing, which makes the memberships very expensive, and therefore only reserved to the upper class of society. It's a vicious circle.”
"A big mess"
For a long time, the expectations of an entire nation rested on the shoulders of Tim Henman, four times a losing semi-finalist. Today, hopes rest on Andy Murray. But while Tim, son of a great English lawyer, had a tennis court in his back garden, to get to the top Andy chose to leave Scottish shores when he was a teenager, and spend two years at an academy in Barcelona. Where the sun never fails. “It's really where I learned to play, between 15 and 17 years old,” he said to the French journalist Yannick Cochennec during an interview with L'Equipe Magazine. “It was a crucial decision because it wasn't easy to leave Scotland, but it was the only solution because there was nobody to play with me and help me progress there. In Barcelona, it was tough at the beginning. I didn't speak the language. I was often alone at mealtimes.” For those who remain at home, it's another story. Paul Jessop, Director of the Association for Free Tennis and leading a campaign for a free access to new tennis courts, remembers some families investing up to £30 000 per year from their savings on club memberships, equipment and personal trainers. “I was talking with the mother of one of our talented children the other day,” says Jessop. “She told me that her son's career was like getting a mortgage.”
Tony Hawk, co-founder of the association, is satisfied that the project would improve the health of the local courts - quoting the government's recent investment of £160 million in new swimming pools as a sign that money is available - but says they have to overcome “the perception of tennis as a brats sport and difficult to play.” Beyond the economic problem, there's also the lack of available players identified by Sport England, a government agency managing the funding of local courts. According to the latter, the number of licensees has fallen by 25% since 2008, particularly among children under 14 years old. Worse, the number of licensees playing tennis once a week, the primary clientèle of the private clubs, has also decreased by 40% in ten years. The lack of participation has direct consequences: Sport England decided last year to reduce its subsidies to the LTA of £600 000, despite revenue for the 2009-2013 period amounting to almost £25 million.
“It's really a big mess” tackles the chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Tennis Group, Baron Billingham, who is strongly opposed to the “bad and opaque” public redistribution of Wimbledon's revenues (estimated at £1 million each year), but also to the future former president of the LTA, Roger Draper, who is retiring in September. “It is unthinkable that someone who earns four times more than the Prime Minister can allow British tennis to go... absolutely nowhere” he said in the columns of the Guardian. Indeed, in March, Draper was splashed all over the British tabloids, with the revelations about his annual salary, up to £400,000, causing uproar in Britain. “Criticism is a national sport in England,” says Hagelauer. “There's a crazy pressure on educators, on training, on the federation... Basically, if you don't produce the next Henman or Murray within two years, then you're rubbish!” A view shared by Des Kelly, a feature columnist for the Daily Mail, and leading actor in the remorseless British media. “It's insane in England. In the press room at Wimbledon, I have in mind the same journalists receiving orders to write the same treatises on the state of our national courts every year,” he recalls. “But the harsh reality of British tennis goes far beyond the last week of June and the first week of July. It's the 50 other weeks in the year! Then, in the middle, comes Wimbledon - a big summer fashion parade where people come to picnic, listen to the grunts of the players, buy a new hat and drink a glass of champagne.” Or, for the future champion, a glass of Robinson's.
By Victor Le Grand, in London