British tennis on the rocks

By Tom Harverson
Anne Keothavong is the British womens number one

Anne Keothavong is the British women's number one

So it would appear that Andy Murray has just been papering over the cracks of British tennis as six out of eight of the British contingent crashed out of the nation’s flagship event.

From all British entrants into this year’s Wimbledon only number two Elena Baltacha and Murray survived the first round cull.

Anne Keothavong, the women’s number one, slumped to a 7-5, 6-2 defeat to Patricia Mayr whilst men’s number two Alex Bogdanovic fell at the first hurdle for the eighth year running.

Yet again the 25-year-old Bogdanovic, who currently sits 191 in the world, stuck true to his Wimbledon form by losing in straight sets to Tomas Berdych of the Czech Republic, 6-3, 6-4, 6-4.

Despite this perpetual failure at Wimbledon, and the LTA admitting that Bogdanovic should not have been included in the last British Davis Cup team for a play-off four months ago, he is still allowed to participate at SW19. Why?

The simple answer to the question, and one that Bogdanovic made himself after his match, is that there is no one else to give the wildcard to. Clearly, below the gleaming surface of British tennis lies a stagnant sea of mediocrity. Again, you really have to ask, why?

A quick example would perhaps clear this up. Look at Serbia: three players inside the world top 50, two women – Jelena Jankovic (6) and Ana Ivanovic (12) – and one man, world number four Novak Djokovic, whilst Janko Tipsarevic sits just outside at number 51.

Two years ago at what was then the DFS Classic in Birmingham – one of the women’s warm-ups to Wimbledon – Jankovic, the former world No1,responded to the question about British shortcomings by telling me about her life growing up in Belgrade which still bore the scars of war.

Everyday, she said, her and her friends would practice on bombed-out courts littered with shell holes, knocking up across split nets with out-of-date racquets in a region that had been ravaged by conflict.

But still she rose to the summit of world tennis. Her counterpart Djokovic has a grand-slam to his name and Ivanovic has tasted victory on the red clay of Roland Garros.

So why with the National Tennis Centre at Roehampton – which cost an estimated £39m and boasts 22 indoor and outdoor courts with fitness gurus and exquisite training facilities – do we produce just one superstar?

OK, admittedly the centre was only opened in 2007 but the LTA has been pumping countless millions into development and training for decades and yet all we can show for it is the excellent but not-quite-the-finished-product Tim Henman and hopefully, hopefully, a Scot with a several grand slams in him.

So what’s the difference? Does it simply come down to how much you really want to win? Are the Serbians simply battle hardened in relation to the Brits that take a pristine court and state-of-the-art Babolat racquet for granted?

Is the fight of Murray – that seemed to be lacking in Henman – and the fire burning deep in his stomach to keep scrapping, to keep improving and to keep winning simply an anomaly in British tennis players?

True, it is hard to question the fight of someone who is in the top 200 players of any sport in the world, but it would appear that something is not quite right in the mentality of British tennis players when Bogdanovic defends himself with, “who else would you give the wildcard to?”

Step one for the LTA and British tennis is pinpointing the cause of this apparent apathy, stamping it out and then kicking the production line into overdrive.

But also the sport must become more accessible to the country as a whole by shaking off its high-class shackles and tapping into the raw talent that exists in Britain.

We all have a lot of work to do. Already the hopes and dreams of a nation lay heavily on the shoulders of one young Atlas. If we are going to end more than 70 years of hurt, he’s going to need a hand.

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