McIlroy and Murray: A tale of two 'middle-class' sports

By Tom de Castella
BBC News Magazine


Some think the sheer cost of tennis and its middle-class image is stopping Britain producing champions. So why is British golf flying high?

This is the time of year when a rash of early exits by British players at Wimbledon prompts a familiar bout of soul-searching among fans and officials.

While British tennis struggles to replicate the achievements of Fred Perry, 75 years ago, a sport with a similar social status offers a stunning contrast.

In golf, the UK now dominates the world. On top of the stunning victory in the US Open of Rory McIlroy, the UK boasts the world number one and two in the form of Luke Donald and Lee Westwood. With four entrants in golf's top 10, the UK outranks even the golf powerhouse of the US.

The failure to create a similar situation in tennis has variously been blamed on lack of mental strength, poor facilities, confused funding choices, and inadequate coaching. There are also critics that suggest that the cost of playing tennis in the UK or the sport's middle-class image is robbing it of potential future stars.

Perry was the son of a Stockport cotton spinner. But the two most successful British men of recent years - Tim Henman and Andy Murray - both came from middle-class backgrounds. Henman was the son of a lawyer who could afford to have a tennis court in the garden.

Murray was sent to Barcelona when he was 15, with the bulk of the £25,000 a year cost paid for by the family. Heather Watson, tipped to be British women's number one, also had to go overseas at great expense. "The message is you have to leave the country to get better at tennis," says the Guardian sportswriter Barney Ronay.

The Murrays lived 500 yards from a tennis club. When Judy Murray's sons needed to play 12 months of the year, they had access to the indoor courts at Stirling University, which was only five miles away.

"If that centre wasn't there and we'd had to drive 40 or 50 miles to Glasgow or Edinburgh then Andy and Jamie may never have gone down the tennis route," Murray tells the BBC News website.

And even for those who stay in Britain, tennis is not a cheap sport. Paul Jessop, chief executive at the charity Tennis for Free, estimates that a youngster who wants to compete will have to spend £400 on equipment and £35 a week on private coaching.

Club membership will cost about around £70 a year for a standard club or £100 a month at a top tennis facility. As players progress, some families have decided to invest up to £40,000 a year of their own money. "I was chatting to the mother of one of our talented kids the other day. She said that supporting his tennis was like getting a mortgage," Jessop says.

The demands on parents are huge, says Murray, who has just launched the charity Set4Sport. As the boys improved they needed to travel further afield to compete against better players. Competition entry fees were £20 or £30 to enter. Add to that petrol costs and large amounts of time ferrying, waiting and watching, and it places huge demands on parents.

image captionThere have been many bright prospects but only one recent star

Then comes the national and international competition. "I don't think anyone understands how expensive and time consuming it is to bring someone up through British tennis," Murray says. "I can understand why a lot of families feel they can't afford it."

Golf is also perceived as expensive and middle-class. A set of golf clubs can set you back a substantial sum, and a round of 18 holes at a municipal course might cost £10-20. But in many areas, the nearest course would be a private club which would cost much more.

To pay for Rory's golfing development, father Gerry worked 100 hours a week as a barman and cleaner, while mother Rosie did the nightshift at a local factory. "I'm a working class man," Gerry McIlroy declared on the day of his son's US Open triumph.

In fact in Northern Ireland, Scotland and parts of north-western England, golf is more affordable and has a less middle-class image than in the home counties. At the Holywood course where McIlroy learnt his game, juniors pay less than £20 a month. Ian Poulter and Lee Westwood are other top golfers who don't fit the sport's middle-class stereotype.

Every golf club has a professional whose job is to bring on the best juniors. "There's a massive pool of coaches for youngsters as they come into the game," says Peter Dawson, chief executive of the R&A, the sport's governing body outside the US and Mexico.

Once young golfers show promise they are taken abroad during the winter for warm weather play over the winter. Tennis does not have the same coaching structure.

The Lawn Tennis Association argues that it is investing in future Andy Murrays and Tim Henmans. The sport's governing body has poured £250m into British tennis over the last five years, largely from the surplus generated at Wimbledon. Last year the LTA spent £19m on tennis coaching and infrastructure and £13.4m on developing talent both at junior and elite level.

But Andy Murray apart there is not another British man in the top 100 and no sign of a budding Nadal or Federer. The situation for British women is slightly different, with two women in the top 100 but no-one anywhere near the top 20.

In 2007 the LTA's National Tennis Centre in Roehampton opened at a cost of £40m to support the elite end of the game. But many argue the centre is barely used.

Judy Murray argues that what is lacking is strong regional clubs that can act as hubs to the hugely important small clubs up and down the land. "If someone had given me £40m I would have built 40 £1m centres. It's more important to grow the game than to stack it all at the top level."

According to the LTA, over 420,000 people in the UK play tennis regularly. But Jessop says in recent years tennis clubs have closed and the number of players has fallen significantly since the 1980s.

France, which has nine men in the top 100, has about four times as many tennis clubs and many more people playing the game regularly. Without the critical mass of people taking up the game, the UK will have to keep sending their best players abroad to learn their trade.

Some argue the whole culture of the game is wrong in the UK. And cost is a frequent complaint.

The LTA highlights 132 beacon sites that offer some free tennis. But, Tony Hawks the tennis loving comedian who co-founded Tennis For Free, says that weekends - the time when kids want to play - are excluded from the offer.

Tennis for Free runs free coaching on Saturdays in south London and argues that for £3m a year the LTA could roll the scheme out in every borough in the country. But with children expected to pay £5 an hour and club membership on top many are being put off.

There's also the class issue. The reason tennis has a middle-class image is because that's not far off the truth, Hawks argues.

His colleague Jessop says that tennis clubs in France have a totally different feeling. "It's a dirtier, rougher, rawer image in France. Wimbledon does us no favours presenting this squeaky clean image."

But former professional Andrew Castle says Wimbledon and tennis can appeal to the working classes. He grew up in a chip shop and a council house but was captivated by Wimbledon as a child.

The event is one Britain can be hugely proud of, he says. "There's universal appeal. It's a fantastic sporting event, run in a very professional way and makes vast sums of money. If we didn't have Wimbledon - where would we be?"

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