Courting a New British Game
These are fast changing times for British tennis. Andy Murray shot into the world’s Top 20 this year with new coach Brad Gilbert. There is a new British Davis Cup Captain, John Lloyd; and they just officially hired Peter Lundgren to coach the team after working with them during the fall. At the center of it all is a new Chief Executive of the Lawn Tennis Association (LTA), Roger Draper, who has big aspirations.
Six months into his job, the former head of Sport England seems to think big and aim high in his goal to totally transform British tennis. Refreshingly unlike other association leaders such as those at the ATP or WTA, who have spent the past few months dribbling out bits and pieces of their seemingly reactive plans to remake the calendar, Draper’s a 21st century businessman who’s using transparency in his approach.
His first endeavor is to build up a solid leadership team. So he launched a recruitment website for a series of LTA executive positions, including the heads of men’s and women’s tennis. The site attracted more than 25,000 visitors, and thousands of applicants. The association’s goal is to have new names and faces in place by the time the LTA’s new National Tennis Centre at Roehampton opens at the end of February.
A major goal is to import top new coaches to groom young English talent, in what The Times of London called “The LTA’s Foreign Aid Package”. The LTA has already sanctioned a three-year deal for Brad Gilbert worth more than 1 Million Pounds which includes coaching And Murray. Now Draper is trying to persuade Paul Annacone to lead the men’s game. If he accepts the position, he will work alongside other high-profile recruits such as Gilbert and Lundgren, who will put the new restructuring plan of the British game into action.
Draper’s organizational plans are also well documented on their own website in the new Blueprint for British Tennis, which is a proposal for the future of the game in the country. The transparent approach is highlighted in the fact that the Blueprint is open for public commentary until November 10th by anyone who wishes to submit their thoughts.
Among the most interesting aspects of the Blueprint is a measure to kill the present LTA Wimbledon ballot. In its place there will be a more inclusive way of distributing Wimbledon tickets, which will reach out to a more diverse population.
At the top of his wish list of supra-goals is bringing the Tennis Masters Cup to Britain. This isn’t such a far fetched idea given that the 2012 London Olympics are coming up, and though London currently lacks suitable indoor venues to host such an event, one of the proposed Olympic sites could be used if completed by November 2009. Add to this that organizers in London are keen to bring world-class competitions to the capital before then, and chances are good that construction could be completed in due time. The LTA is committed to using the 30 Million Pounds they earn every year from Wimbledon to bring the prestigious ATP event to the capital. Paris is currently London’s only serious rival for the bid, and chances are looking good for the City.
Draper also wants to bring more top-notch tournaments to Britain, and to add a regular winter event to the British calendar and another big grass court tournament for women in London before Wimbledon. Whether the other tennis bodies go for these proposals is still in question, but no one can deny that the momentum is building.
The community development level includes plans for a major overhaul of coaching in clubs, schools and training centers, which might ultimately have a bigger impact than his more newsworthy ambitions. He’s also anxious to promote the sport to kids, and has asked the Stella Artois tournament to make more tickets available for children. “I saw Rafael Nadal play at Queen’s Club this year,” he said, “and there were 7,000 people watching, but most of them were City boys and posh totty. And I was thinking that it could have been 7,000 kids watching Nadal and being inspired. We need to change that.”
‘Changing that’ is the crucial element here. It’s hard to fathom another tennis body even coming up with the aggressive recruitment — no less openness — that Draper’s bringing to his work at the LTA. In the coming years it will be exciting to see the results. Such a major overhaul is not going to be easy, and it certainly won’t be quick, particularly the cultivation of new young talent. I just hope that the women’s game in Britain receives as much attention and care as what’s obviously being given to the men. Time will tell if Draper’s plans are effective, but on the surface they certainly seem smart.
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