British Tennis: A Great Sport Ruined by Elitism

by Charlie_East_West on June 24, 2013

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Today is one of my favourite days of the year. Today marks the start of Wimbledon. What is a British summer without Wimbledon? More than any other British sporting event, Wimbledon encapsulates everything that is good and bad about British sport, and our class system. We host the biggest tennis tournament in the world, a sport with a genius scoring system and featuring some of the most exciting and charismatic individual sports men and women in the world, crammed into a two week festival of Union Jack waving, home county snobbery, and over priced Pimms, strawberries and cream.

I have been a lifelong tennis nut. I cannot remember a time in my life where I was not playing tennis or watching tennis. My life has been peppered with various trips to Wimbledon where I have had the pleasure of watching John McEnroe, Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Boris Becker, Pat Cash, Roger Federer, Steffi Graf and the Williams sisters.

However, I have a massive problem with the class system that continues to destroy tennis in Britain. The Wimbledon crowd is either a mawkishly ridiculous sporting version of the worst event in Britain – the Last Night of the Proms (my fingers are already twitching to post my thoughts on this British institution later in the summer), or a bunch of corporate old school tie blazers, cream chinos, sunglasses on foreheads (god, how I hate that look), sweaters over the shoulders, deck shoed, home county tennis club brigade watching intently in almost complete silence under a self induced consumption of Pimms. I say, as long as the right chaps or chapesses play in white, then tally ho. No-one does pomp, rules, pessimism or self-conscious patriotism like we the British, and I absolutely hate all of that.

It is sport for the shires. It’s like a great big village fete. What other events give the opportunity to dig out the Union Jack bunting and sit on Henman Hill with pots of homemade jam and scones to partake in the another chorus of “for he’s a jolly good fellow” led by Cliff Richard? Brilliant. Well done us. Here’s to us. Rule Britannia. Bottoms up. Fucking awful. It makes my arse open up.

It is because of all of that twee faux-imperialistic claptrap that I have always reacted against the whole club mentality that is destroying tennis in this country. We have a great game and what do we do to it in this country? We twee the living daylights out of it and turn the whole sport into looking like the insides of a Joules shop. What the hell are we doing? It is awful. Because of this middle England approach to tennis, we are systematically ruining the opportunity for genuine potential champions to emerge from a variety of backgrounds.

Our tennis governing body – the Lawn Tennis Association, sit on an annual post Wimbledon and public funded £60m pot and we are still waiting for a single world class player to come through the LTA futures system. The LTA have put hundreds of millions in over the past 10 years and have produced two world class players in Tim Henman and Andy Murray – neither of which had anything to do with the LTA. The only thing they are very good at is failing to produce any world class player. They continue to look at tennis in all the wrong places.

There has been growing criticism of the LTA from those who know their onions on tennis development. Judy Murray, Andy Murray’s mother, has recently called for the LTA to introduce more free courts around the country to widen the game beyond its middle-class and elitist playing base. Murray is concerned about a dearth of new talent after it emerged that several schemes to improve free-to-use public courts in deprived urban areas had failed to materialise.
She wants tennis to get into areas not associated with the game and to “put tennis where it has never been before and to have attractive, affordable public courts is crucial.”

Judy Murray is completely correct on this, and she has credibility on this issue. Her state school educated son came from playing on the rain-soaked public courts in Dunblane and during his childhood lived in Spain for a year to learn the ropes away from the misplaced LTA coaching systems. The Registro de Profesional Tenis, which claims much of the credit for the strength of the sport in Spain (and Andy Murray’s formative time in Spain) said that the huge investment in the British game had been wasted because it was targeted in the wrong areas.

Go to Spain and you will see free to use public courts everywhere – whether it be a remote village or a city. You will also see kids hammering the ball back and forward across a net for hours – wearing any form of clothing, rather than in this country, where most public tennis courts come with a fee, or a gigantic private members cost, and in many cases, come with a fussy jobsworthy member demanding that everyone has to wear white clothing on court, and a tie in the clubhouse.

Britain has never had tennis stars with origins like those of the Williams sisters, who started playing on the wrong side of the track public courts of Compton, Los Angeles. The pair have since gone on to win 23 grand slam singles titles.

Tennis is a brilliant game, but in this country it remains a game that from the Wimbledon Championships to grassroots tennis is still pointing itself in the wrong direction.

Anyone for tennis? Hardly. I think I will pass on the Pimms.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Jackie_South June 24, 2013 at 10:57 am

Broadly fair, although the success of Murray does show that people from ordinary backgrounds can break through. That said, the snootiness of the British establishment about Murray – all that stuff about being “too serious” and “not British enough” (yes, that’s why he can win at a time when the competition is some of the greatest tennis players of all time) does demonstrate your point well.

One thing I would defend the establishment for though against your criticisms – there’s noting wrong about scones and jam!

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Charlie_East_West June 24, 2013 at 12:43 pm

Jackie – spot on. I suggest however, that it is more likely that kids will break through by circumnavigating the LTA and doing it their own way (if they can find a free and accessible public court).

I was completely wrong about scones and jam. Magnificent bastards that they are!

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George_East June 24, 2013 at 11:19 am

You always get the sense with the British tennis establishment that they prefer posh boy losers, to real talent. Murray is the finest tennis player these shores have, perhaps, ever produced and yet it wasn’t really until last summer with his emotion at the end of the Wimbledon final and then his Olympic gold medal, that he was treated with the respect that he deserves.

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Charlie_East_West June 24, 2013 at 12:45 pm

George – I completely agree with this. The BBC documentary about Murray and his story (including the Dunblane tragedy) was pretty compelling viewing last night.

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Charlie_East_West June 24, 2013 at 12:54 pm

There is also the question about the backgrounds of champion players. Increasingly, they appear to be coming from either poor Eastern European upbringings or hothousing parents – or both.

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Peter Brookland July 11, 2013 at 10:08 pm

The present sectretary of the LTA was a work associate of mine for over 10 years. He had a tremendous passion for the game but I doubt if that would have included taking the game to this countrys inner city areas. Sadly many in the LTA want that level of class elitism as to put it bluntly it keeps out the riff-raff.

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Chris Chalat June 26, 2015 at 4:50 pm

Britain would have 5 6 or 7 world claß tennis players reson why we have not is posh tennis clubs; no chance to be a member, question one on the membership form what do you parents do for a living

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