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AtTheMatch Magazine
By Stuart Fraser
Monday 4th July 2011

IT is that annual part of the year when the state of British tennis is bemoaned.

The recent non-stop Wimbledon coverage on terrestrial television creates a short period when tennis comes under the spotlight of the nation more than any other sport.

And with few British players competing at the oldest tennis tournament in the world, the country’s governing body, the Lawn Tennis Association (LTA), faces criticism from those wondering why there appears to be no one coming through to join Andy Murray in competing at the highest level.

Leon Smith, the former coach of Murray during his teenage years, is one of those who has to bear the brunt in his dual role as the British Davis Cup captain and head of men’s tennis at the LTA.  Since taking on the job in April of last year, he is well used to intense questioning on the subject but insists it doesn’t get to him.

“It doesn’t annoy us because we are all disappointed as well,” says the 35-year-old from Edinburgh.  “We would love to have more players playing at Wimbledon.  To go from court to court and watch as many British guys as possible would be a much better way to spend the championships.

“With that said, we are where we are right now because we don’t have the depth in that age bracket between 20 and 23 where most of the guys would be in their peak ranking time.  We just don’t have the depth and that is something we are trying really hard with all the younger guys to make sure we have the right programmes in place to help this next generation of players of which there is a lot of good talent out there.”

Whilst there are currently no British male players coming anywhere close to the level which Murray has reached, there is hope for the future in younger players like Liam Broady, Oliver Golding and George Morgan - all teenagers who have impressed on the junior circuit in recent years.

But the transition from the junior circuit to the professional tour is something that some British players have historically tended to struggle with.  Martin Lee is a prime example as a former junior world No.1 in the mid 1990s who never made it any higher than No.94 in the world rankings.  So what are the LTA doing to change this?

“We are doing things like long trips to Spain with some of the 16 to 18-year-olds,” says Smith.  “We send them out for six weeks on the red clay, playing against some of the Spanish clay courters to try and emphasise that mental toughness in longer points under tougher conditions.

“We have also put a lot more emphasis on physical training over the last three to four years and I think we are starting to see better athletes coming through to help that transition into the professional game.

“We have got a lot of good people and support staff out there, whether it is coaches at the National Tennis Centre [in Roehampton] or coaches at the high performance centres around the country, that are trying hard.

“The other element is to make sure we keep giving the right messages.  When we are talking to the guys, as much as we support and motivate, there are a lot of tough words going on as well.

“There is a difference between giving people the right sophisticated support but also making sure there are the tough messages and hard work which goes with it.”

For now though, until the future talent comes through, Britain will have to make do with one world class tennis player in Murray who, alone, has undoubtedly raised the profile of tennis in the country and Smith is proud of the positive effect his former charge has had. 

“The Andy Murray factor is something any nation would cherish,” he says.  “If you look at Serbian tennis with Novak Djokovic and Swiss tennis with Martina Hingis and Roger Federer, one of the big factors is having role models and it is so important to have that in British tennis so there is an identity.”

Time will tell if we are to have some new role models in British tennis within the next few years.  Smith seems confident that things will improve.  Let us hope he is right.