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British coaches lead national success

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Jonathan Overend | 13:20 UK time, Monday, 13 February 2012

British tennis has taken more than its fair share of bashing over the years - some of it unjustified, much of it fully warranted - so how nice to be able to say, shout (or actually should it be whisper?) that things are definitely on the up. For once, results prove it.

Three boys semi-finalists in the US Open juniors, six players in the main draw of the Australian Open without needing a single wild card, junior Grand Slam doubles champions, four wins out of four for the GB Fed Cup team at the recent play-off in Israel and now, over a tense weekend in Glasgow, a thrilling win for the Davis Cup team, without the assistance of Andy Murray.

Admittedly it was Group One of the Euro Africa Zone, with 'only' the Slovak Republic in opposition, but Britain were outranked in all four of the singles rubbers. Slovakia had two singles players inside the top 150; Britain had none. This was a significant win on the banks of the Clyde.

James Ward didn't have one of his better weekends, although he will play worse and win matches this year. Colin Fleming and Ross Hutchins proved again they are an international-standard doubles team and Dan Evans - often the whipping boy - was the undoubted hero with two wins from two.

Britain's Davis Cup team

Britain's Davis Cup team are part of a wave of national success. Photo: Getty

The 21-year-old from Solihull has always had talent and his lowly ranking of 273 is a mystery when you watch him play. Off the court, the stories haven't always been positive. The impression I have formed - just an impression - is of someone uncertain whether professional tennis is really for him.

Hopefully his magnificent deciding-set, deciding-rubber victory (first time that's happened for Britain for decades) answered the question, although, talking to Lawn Tennis Association coaches, that attitude change has been in place for a reasonable time.

Having lost his central funding - one late-night tale too many - he's getting help once more and believes in the people trying to steer his talent towards results. On this evidence, and with a professional attitude back on the tour, he has a decent future.

Murray has been saying for years that other British male players need to step up and learn how to win matches at this level. This weekend was proof that his occasional absence is no bad thing because Davis Cup is not a competition for one-man teams.

We've had to take some pastings to get to this position - and that hasn't always reflected well on Murray when he's decided to do other things - but has it helped James Ward and Dan Evans grow stronger as individuals and players? Absolutely.

From being embarrassed in Vilnius two year ago in the shameful defeat to Lithuania which forced out captain John Lloyd, Britain has moved forward impressively under the new leadership of Leon Smith, winning five ties in succession.

The inexperienced Smith, whose appointment was ridiculed in some quarters, is not only Davis Cup captain but also head of men's and women's tennis at the LTA. What he lacks in his CV or his ego - seemingly essential requirements for an LTA coaching job in the past - he more than makes up for in passion, positivity and a desire to learn and improve.

Finally British tennis, and specifically the chief executive Roger Draper, has reached the conclusion that supporting passionate British coaches - people who will still be working for the good of British tennis in 20-30 years time - is the way forward.

While this column has jumped on perceived LTA failings many times in the past (so it is only fair we give credit where it's due) I have never questioned the commitment of the British coaches who do their best in often trying circumstances.

What I have criticised is the money-no-object policy of the past five years with ludicrous salaries, company credit cards, bizzo flights, monster bonuses...and then the inevitable pay-off and hush money.

We tried to buy short term success - "quick wins" to quote one of the more distasteful Draperisms - and only now are we realising, because all the expensive foreign purchases have left, that investing in British coaches is the way forward.

I thought paying for Brad Gilbert to coach Murray at the start of his career wasn't a bad idea (although failing to demand the money back was strange) but the rest of them? Peter Lundgren, Paul Annacone, Steven Martens, Anne Quinn, all hired on six figure salaries, all now headed off into the sunset.

Of course they helped, to a point, but that money - that not-so-small fortune - has now gone. And gone out of British tennis. Now inexperienced replacements are getting better results out of many of the same players. Should we really be surprised? This sequence of positive results has not happened just by luck.

Draper, who must know he was fortunate to survive the nadir of Vilnius and the subsequent poor showing at Wimbledon, has hopefully accepted he got it wrong. And if he has, he should be praised too.

But the biggest praise needs to go to the coaches and to the players. They are the ones knuckling down in the real world. Some in Spain, some in America, some in Scotland, some in the north of England. All over the place, not just in the spotless yummy-mummy land of Roehampton.

Let the players play and the coaches coach. And, eureka, things are starting to happen.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    Why did it take Chief Executive Roger Draper so long to conclude that "supporting passionate British coaches - people who will still be working for the good of British tennis in 20-30 years time", was so important for the future of British tennis?

    I have heard comment that this doesn't necessarily extend downwards, that passionate coaches at grass roots level, the coaches which find and develop talent, are not well supported, and that their young charges have to be shipped off to impersonal LTA supported centres for continued development, where that important personal bond is lost, and the young player may lose "identity" and motivation.

  • Comment number 2.

    The funny thing is that we're only one more decent player away from being a formidable Davis Cup team. We have an excellent doubles pair and Andy Murray (who will surely play if we get up to the world group). From those two we're virtually guarenteed two points out three at least.

    I'm quite excited by how the Juniors will look in a couple of years time if they continue their progression. Let's hope they keep improving!

  • Comment number 3.

    It was a great win for the Mens team. When I heard Dan Evans had been picked for the team i thought 'You have got to be kidding me' but he has proven me wrong.

    Maybe the guys didn't want to be overshadowed by the girls who are quickly becoming the better 'team'.

    Well done to the guys. I do hope Dan usues this as an eye opener and says to himself 'I belong at this level week in week out'. He is a talented player no doubt and maybe now he will fulfill that promise and start the chain of new british men breaking into the top 100. If James doesn't get there first.

  • Comment number 4.

    To add to Jonathon's list of things moving on the right direction, we have Anne Keothavong's first win against a top 20 player in Pattaya last week, and winning a tough match in Doha today. Critical focus needs to be on the youngsters really coming through in the next 1-2 years, both in the boys and the girls. Watson and Robson need to kick on into the top 100 of the ladies through 2012 so they are ready to pick up the mantle from Anne and Elena Baltacha when the day comes. Liam Broady and the rest of the boys need to set their sights on putting pressure on Dan Evans/James Ward et al and push them to retain their places in the Biritish rankings, which should mean they all need to improve their positions in the worlds. What does a successful 2012 look like in singles - 4 women in the top 80; two extra men in the top 100 (with AM climbing in the top 4) would I suggest be a satisfying outcome for Leon Smith and his team. Another 3 or 4 mean in the 100-200 range would be even better.

  • Comment number 5.

    We should leave Murray out incase Scotland go independent. Anyway it would stop new talent comming through.

  • Comment number 6.

    A great end on Sunday at Braehead so onwards and upwards ! Does anyone know why Hawkeye was not there - a few close calls on the last day !

  • Comment number 7.

    Hawkeye wasn't there because of the cost i would assume. This was not a big event as such, even the last time GB played a 'big' match at home - which was a world group play off vs Austria in 08, played at Wimby Ct 1, they didn't have hawk eye.

    Great result from Dan, everything just seemed to work out for him. the court speed seemed perfect for his game. i have to admit when it went to a 5th set i thought he was done for so was really good to see him come through it.

    Belgians will be tougher, hopefully Andy will be back. Wonder who Smith will opt for as number 2 now, Ward who is higher ranked but lost both matches or Evans.

  • Comment number 8.

    Great win for the team and I'm sure the crowd helped, especially with Dan, but do they really need to go back to Braehead for the fourth time in a row. The LTA used to have a policy of rotating Davis Cup ties around the country which was great, Eastbourne, Birmingham, Liverpool, we enjoyed going to them all, but to regularly go to Glasgow doesn't really spread the message. If you live where we do, Brussels would have been closer had we been playing Belgium away!

  • Comment number 9.

    I am the biggest LTA / Draper basher when speaking with friends and generally about tennis matters. So I will admit that this is a great step forward. However Quick question for anyone who will tell me a truthful answer. Is this a direct result because of the LTA / Draper or in spite of them? If the first then hats off maybe we are heading in the right direction and if it took 5 years and a waste of millions then ok. If however its not then get ready for a massive dissapointment over then next few years.
    If as is predicted above tennis does start to improve at the top end, when will we see massive investment at grass roots. I can't understand why we don't have more indoor buble courts for winter tennis. Surley the costs are not that silly when compared to the money the LTA has spent on coaches and etc.
    Please please can some one some where at least publish a new 10 year plan that shows some form of co=ordination when it come to public tennis courts and there upkeep.

  • Comment number 10.

    Poor article. James Ward looked like a tennis player devoid of any ounce of understanding of tennis strategy or how to win a match. Continued history has always been that we produce good, technically sound junior players (before the big money you talk about), Martin Lee a prime example, but when they progress to the senior tour they lack the mental fortitude and skills to find a way to win when up against other players who are also technically sound.

    As for writing off the big money coaches........I think they may just have had an input into the careers of some of those coming to the fore now, being that they were involved with the junior set up and emerging players. But hey who lets facts get in the way of a story....have you thought about a move to the Sun??

  • Comment number 11.

    I half-expected a win going into this tie with Slovakia as I knew that our doubles pairing of Hutchins and Fleming would continue to come good - they are a fantastic partnership with a collectively astute tennis brain. I then expected James Ward to possibly win both of his matches based upon his self-belief that he can beat players like Lacko and Klizan that are ranked higher than him, on home soil. Where I thought we would come unstuck was definitely with Dan Evans' matches. I got the doubles predictions right, but I sure could not have been more wrong with the singles.

    I turned on the first rubber to find that Evans was a break up. Having won the first set after that I thought 'ok, let's just hold our horses here and wait and see'. I think it's fair to say that Lacko - a top 60/70 player had no answer to what Evans was throwing at him, and he absolutely hammered the Slovak. In fact, against Klizan he was even more impressive and played some unbelievable tennis that offered great variety and pace. Very well done to him for proving a lot of us wrong!

    I was a bit disappointed with Ward, although he definitely should have taken his chances in the 3rd set of the second rubber against Klizan, and against Lacko the first set was clearly what defined the match. Ward is still a good player and will hopefully boost himself up the rankings in the coming months.

    The next tie against Belgium will be harder, but only if we don't have Andy Murray. If Murray plays then he'll likely beat the likes of Rochus, Malisse or Darcis, and I would fancy our chances against their doubles team. Just for the record I don't think for one second that Murray not playing certain Davis Cup ties is wrong. He made the decision to enable others to step up to the plate, play on live television in front of bigger crowds and not hold them back. When Henman and Rusedski retired in 2007 we knew that we could not just rely on one man to win these challenging ties and hopefully we are finally now seeing the rewards of Murray's decision to sit out a few of them.

    Keep up the good work Leon Smith and GB!

  • Comment number 12.

    #10 Phil, this was the same James Ward who beat Wawrinka and Querrey on his way to the semi-final (lost in 2 to Tsonga, having had a tie-break set point) at Queens last June, so he does know something about winning. It woiuld seem there's a consistency issue with him - he looked like a top 50 player at Queens (not I think only because of the grass) and has not improved his ranking since then in the way he and we would have hoped. Is the cage-fighter trainer still with him?

    If Evans can continue at the level of last weekend he should make some signiificant strides up the rankings - the same is true for Robson and Watson in the ladies. If they are going to deliver their potential, we have to see it them progress this year.

  • Comment number 13.

    Why on earth is James Ward even allowed in the picture here?? Well done Dan Evans!!

  • Comment number 14.

    Leon Smith is doing an excellent job. He keeps himself to himself and concentrates solely on his team. I've been able to attend the last 3 ties at Braehead and the team spirit this time round was very evident. Ross Hutchins was on his feet after every single point during Evans' match on Sunday, very much the team player. I had expected only a doubles victory and was delighted to see Dan Evans' form on Friday, and again on Sunday- no nerves at all. Not once did he look under pressure, just got on with it. What a pleasant surprise!
    As for bringing DC back to Braehead- well, down south gets Wimbledon, Queens and the O2. I hadn't expected the attendance to be as good this time round due to the lack of Murray, but this tie was easily the most enjoyable. It's likely when we get back into the world group the tie will be taken away from Braehead but it's the only chance Scotland gets to watch this level of tennis live, so let's share!

  • Comment number 15.

    I would like to say I agree with the fact that English tennis is improving, on both the male and female sides. But I think it should be whispered, because it's not like we haven't been in this situation before, with numerous talented juniors, and managed to destroy each and everyone! No better example than Jamie Murray, a world number 2 at junior singles level... what a great singles player he has become. Another, the hero of our latest Davis Cup win, Dan Evans someone I grew up playing against in Birmingham, is currently playing very well but he has always had amazing talent and when an over bearing LTA met teenage angst we saw his revolt and they threw him out, potentially wasting talent yet again. I will be interested to see how Laura Robson progresses now she has come back to train in England!
    Though I have to admit I was unsure about the appointments of both Judy Murray and Leon Smith, I have to concede they are doing amazing jobs with the players at there disposal. But lets not forget, Slovakia are still a distinctly average tennis nation, there are bigger and better tests to come.

    Despite the slight changing in attitudes at the LTA which are starting to take affect (after how many years and millions of pounds?) I will still be a happier man when RPT take more control over British tennis, because however great the LTA's results, they will never surpass that of the RPT.

 

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