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Davis Cup win papers over cracks

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Jonathan Overend | 07:19 UK time, Monday, 7 March 2011

Way down the international agenda on a tennis weekend with no shortage of talking points, from Ivo Karlovic's new world record 156mph serve to Jelena Dokic's first WTA title since 2002, Great Britain earned another crumb of Davis Cup respectability.

However, their tie with Tunisia - a second successive win for new captain Leon Smith - was undoubtedly closer than many had expected.

Full credit for that goes to Malek Jaziri, the visitors' number one, who excelled himself on all three days as he beat Jamie Baker in the opening singles, made an unexpected contest of the doubles with partner Slim Hamza, and come within three points of beating James Ward and taking us all the way to a nerve-shredding decider.

With Britain's recent record in fifth and deciding rubbers utterly abysmal (they haven't won a match from 2-2 since 1997) it was imperative for the health of the Bolton public that Ward got the job finished in the fourth match, which he finally did 8-6 in the final set after almost four hours.

Baker, who completed the 4-1 win with victory over Hamza in the last match, would have come to Britain's rescue had the tie still been live but nobody wanted the risk. This is the nation which lost to Lithuania, after all.

Britain's James Ward won both his singles matches against Tunisia

Britain's James Ward won both his singles matches against Tunisia in Bolton

In an erratic match, Ward played well in those tight closing moments, his serve holding up impressively, and the patience he displayed during some long rallies wore Jaziri mentally, demonstrated by the Tunisian's reckless smack of a haymaker forehand into the net to concede the vital break in the penultimate game.

Londoner Ward, suffering from sinus trouble, hasn't been in the best form with a series of early defeats in tournaments, but he showed the sort of gumption under pressure to suggest a future in the team, certainly as Andy Murray's number two in the next match.

Murray should come in for the promotion play-off with Luxembourg in July - he needs to play at some point before London 2012 to be eligible for the Olympic tennis tournament - and Ward will surely back him up. Colin Fleming and Jamie Murray are likely to remain as the doubles partnership, with Andy Murray allowed to enjoy the weekend slightly more than he has in the past by sticking to singles.

Apart from a wild gesture from Ward on match point, there were no extravagant celebrations in Bolton. Recovering one notch in Euro/Africa Zone II is not even worthy of a pitiful party-popper, and the horror of Lithuania remains too vivid in the memory.

But captain Smith, assisted by Colin Beecher and Nick Weal, has clearly got his boys on the right track. The likes of Ward and Baker are getting useful Davis Cup experience which, we must hope, will benefit them when they step up in class in a higher division next year.

Now back to the day jobs; the accumulation of ATP points for the under-performing British men (only Murray is in the top 200 at the time of writing - shameful) and the strategic planning for Smith, the head of men's tennis at the LTA, who has such a big job to arrest the dramatic recent decline in rankings.

The governing body remains under scrutiny, especially with Roger Draper nearing his five-year anniversary as chief executive.

On the final morning of the tie in Bolton, in a shock as significant in tennis terms as The Sun deciding to switch political allegiance, the normally mild-mannered Telegraph newspaper fired a series of indisputable facts in an incendiary article.

Always the paper of choice for the lawn tennis types, the Telegraph's comprehensive dismissal of Draper's tenure - highlighting missed targets and lavish expenditure - will have resonated painfully through the shires, with committee men choking on their cornflakes.

Invitations to Draper to express a view in response were declined by his people. You know a sport is in a mess when the boss feels too unperturbed/annoyed/afraid, whatever his reaction was, to speak about it. Could he not even come out to praise the team's performance?

In running the sport, Draper, who has support at the top table from two former Sport England colleagues, commercial man Bruce Philipps and development boss Tom Harlow, appears a chief increasingly detached from the workers beneath him.

Link man Steven Martens, in charge of performance for the past two years, is leaving at the start of April to head up the Belgian Football Association. Remaining on the payroll for now, he may have been expected to take his customary place on the Bolton bench in a tracksuit, yet instead he watched from a stool on the balcony wearing a black overcoat. He looked as good as gone.

When American guru Paul Annacone departed in September to coach Roger Federer, he became the last of Draper's big-money coaching signings to collect a final bag of bullion and ride off into a golden sunset.

Who is taking responsibility now? And who, most importantly, is going to be the new head of performance, to plug the vacuum created by the departure of Martens and Annacone?

It needs to be someone with a deep knowledge of tennis in Britain, preferably with experience and credibility who has run a performance programme before, and definitely someone who will work with Draper.

The problem is, nobody really fits the bill.

So many of British tennis' experienced figures are either disillusioned or have been dismissed from previous jobs. Others feel alienated, with much to offer but never consulted.

Coaches like David Lloyd, David Felgate, Jeremy Bates, Dave Sammell and Mark Petchey are all passionate about British tennis and always will be. Yet there are few good words to be heard from any of them about the organisation of their sport over the past five years.

Negativity abounds, admittedly, but surely they are not all wrong. This is the time for harmonious invitations to constructive discussions. If there are disagreements, use the arguments constructively to create better decisions and policies moving forward. Can it happen?

Draper needs to go on a bridge-building exercise, otherwise the search for a performance director will have to go out of the box, maybe out of the country, and - who knows - possibly out of the sport.


  • Comment number 1.

    Can someone clarify what a performance director's job would entail?

    If it was to improve the current crop of players then its always going to be a losing battle. I'm not sure if any of them are top 100 material, even if they fulfilled their potential.

    Surely its more important to get the next generation of players through?

  • Comment number 2.

    Well done Jonathan and Mark Hodgkinson of the Telegraph for telling it like it is.
    Over a long period, Draper and his management team have been handsomely rewarded for failure - as judged by their own targets - and this is quite simply unacceptable.
    To the excellent article above, i would add the very obvious fact that Andy Murray has succeeded in spite of and not because of the LTA. There is a strong justification for removing his ranking from the top-5 averages calculated above which would give a much truer picture of Draper's spectacular failure.

  • Comment number 3.

    Tennis is one of those sports in the UK whre a huge gulf between domestic and international standards has developed.

    The fact is that other lesser sports have found talented individuals and developed structures to support their athletes for example cycling and swimming.

    Even BBC TV have pulled their Davis Cup coverage lowering the profile of the game even further. I'm sure there are plenty of children who wanted to the next Tim Henman but where has that generation gone? You are now waiting for Andy Murray to motivate the next revival, but the path and coordinated support is far from clear and has lost all credibility.

  • Comment number 4.

    Agreed that Murray achieved his success so far despite of the LTA and it was interesting that his brother remained in the LTA system and 2/3 years ago Andy was extremely critical of the LTA saying they let his brother down.

    It also needs to be pointed out that the cost of tennis coaching is prohibitive. I was chatting to a Yorkshire Vets player and coach at a club in Leeds and he said the easiest thing to do would be to employ local LTA coaches who have free use of courts on set days and times and people can get their kids coached for free by putting their names down. Spark kid's interests and from these sessions youngsters who showthat hunger and aptitude to listen, learn and improve then get extra lessons by that coach at the costs of the LTA. Surely by the time kids get to the age of 20 or so, the level of improvement or value added by an expensive coach is going to be relatively small as opposed to the impact good free coaching would have on a raw youngster. 95% of the wimbledon profits should be sent to under 16 coaching and I'm sure most if it could be free of charge.

  • Comment number 5.

    Well said comments 1,2 & 3.

  • Comment number 6.

    I think this highlights the real problem with British Tennis that has existed for years - a proper "root & branch" review of the LTA as an organisation, from local club level all the way to the top, is long overdue.
    Speaking as a former Under-18 County Level player back in the mid 1990's, its clear that the system was and still is failing players on all levels - back then when I was playing at county level, the drop-out rate of players (especially some real talented individuals) was astonishing, and it was simply down to a lack of defined organisation & structure from the LTA being passed onto regional/county associations. The feeling that was shared between players was that once you had reached a certain standard of play, it was near-impossible to move onto the next level as the necessary support & direction simply wasn't present. Once I had reached the age of 19 myself, I practically gave up competitive tennis as there was simply nothing to move onto - there was little active encouragement by the LTA or Regional/County associations to go into coaching, nor was there a sufficient system of Regional/county-wide competitive tennis (leagues, tournaments etc) to compete in, apart from small club-level weekend tournaments that were only loosely sanctioned by the LTA.
    Granted, I and most other county-level players would have never become professional, but surely it is in the sport's wider interests to keep players of all levels (especially those who have at the very least an ounce of talent) involved/interested in some way? Keep a casual player interested, and they may become a club-level player. Keep a club-level player interested, and they may develop into a county-level player, and so on, all the way to semi-pro/pro level. Build & sustain that interest, and the amount of kids playing tennis increases, thus increasing the potential talent pool.
    Surely, if nothing else, its better than setting out & relying upon costly, bureaucratic performance frameworks that only focus on one end of the sport's spectrum & always seem to end up in costly failure.

  • Comment number 7.

    As I've said before:

    If one looks at Draper's bio from the Sport England website in 2003 it says this:

    "Roger joined Sport England as Chief Operating Officer from the Lawn Tennis Association where he was Director of Development for three and a half years. He joined Sport England at a time of radical change and modernisation."


    "During his time at the LTA, Roger carried out some of the most significant reforms in the history of British tennis and has played a leading role in helping to bring about a sea change in attitudes towards the sport."

    So, this guy had a high profile role at the LTA before September 2002! He introduced "significant reforms" at the LTA in his first period there. Now he has also been chief exec since 2006.

    So, he's had two major roles there in the last 10 years. And British tennis? It's still rubbish!

    Interesting that Draper's bio on the LTA website doesn't allude to all these roles any more...

  • Comment number 8.

    Back in 2006 I remember thinking how dismal it was to only have 4 or 6 players at most in the top 200 of the men's game, yet the current standing is nothing short of woeful.

    If it was any other company or organisation then Draper would be out in a flash, but because it is the LTA, failure is tolerated to an alarming degree. Mark Petchey never pulls any punches in any of his interviews regarding this shambolic governing body and good for him because he knows as well as the rest of us that the rot will continue unless radical changes are made.

    If George Milton gets into the top 100 then I will be absolutely amazed due to the fact that every promising, talented young player gets stifled somewhere along the line and gets forgotten before their senior career even gets started. A good example is Miles Kasiri back in 2004 who got to the junior Wimbledon final losing to Gael Monfils.

  • Comment number 9.

    One thing i'd like Jonathan to answer isn't the LTA responsible for the women's game too and hasn't that in the last few years actually got stronger in depth with several women gone from around the 200-300 mark where we used to be, to having several around the 100 and 2 recently in the 50's with Heather Watson and Laura Robson looking promising so if that is a lot stronger than the men ,what are the LTA doing differently? or is it down to less competitive sports for women to do professionally (whereas most guys may be in football/rugby/cricket).

  • Comment number 10.

    I was at the DC this weekend. I assume the LTA grandees were sitting in the "posh" seats with Roger Draper amongst them. Why didn't they circulate amongst the supporters and talk to them between matches Talk about "ivory towers".
    The team were great signing balls and chatting to youngsters and I particularly enjoyed watching James Ward guts it out.


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