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AS Great Britain prepare for their Davis Cup tie against Tunisia in Bolton this weekend, the state of the men’s game in the country could hardly be more concerning.
The ATP Tour world rankings feature only two British players in the top 300: Andy Murray at No.5 and James Ward at No.214. Yet when Roger Draper took up the post of Chief Executive at the Lawn Tennis Association in April 2006, no fewer than nine British players were among the world’s best 300.
As Draper and British tennis desperately seek new talent, a glimmer of hope for the future has emerged in Arbroath’s Jonny O’Mara who turns 16 today. He led the three man British 16 & Under boys’ team to victory in the prestigious Tennis Europe Winter Cup in France recently, beating the hosts in a tight final which came down to a deciding doubles rubber in front a patriotic home crowd.
O’Mara is one of the leading British juniors, having won the Under-16 National Championships in Bournemouth last summer. The young Scot travels to Stirling University for training three times a week and is backed by an impressive team, headed by coach Mark Walker. Judy Murray provides guidance and his fitness work is overseen by the former 10,000m world champion Liz McColgan.
By winning the Winter Cup, O’Mara and his team-mates went one better than the British side of 2002, which featured Andy Murray and Jamie Baker. They reached the final but lost to a Spanish team which boasted a certain Rafael Nadal.
For O’Mara, winning the crucial decider was the highlight of his fledgling tennis career so far. “I have never felt like that in doubles before,” he said. “It was the best tennis match of my life. The two French boys we had to play, Alexandro Favrot and Enzo Py, were unbeaten in two years so we were definitely the underdogs. When we won the last point - I hit a return winner - it was an unbelievable feeling.”
The youngster is happy to stay in Scotland at present and is supported by his local community in Arbroath, where the local Specsavers branch and Angus Soft Fruits providing sponsorship. He is well aware, though, that after sitting his standard grade exams at Arbroath High School in the summer, he may have to move abroad to further his career, just as Murray did when he moved to the Sanchez-Casal Academy in Spain during his teenage years.
“I think I am happy at home at the moment because I am happy with the team I have got but I am going to look where to go next maybe after my exams,” said O’Mara. “Possibly Germany or somewhere like that but I haven’t been to any of these academies yet so I think as well as fitting in my school work and competitions, I will be going to try out a few of these academies to see what they are like.”
His mentor Judy is well-qualified in overseeing the progress of a promising young player into a world class competitor and she will help O’Mara with potential future moves he is considering, but she insists that he has to be fully committed and convinced that is what he wants to do.
“It has to be his decision,” she said. “We can advise him but he has to be comfortable with leaving school, leaving home and really trying to commit to the life of a tennis player. He has achieved a lot over the last few weeks and has shown he is one of the best kids in Europe for his age group and it’s now really up to him to use this to kick on.
“I can see similarities between him and Andy in their hand skills. He has great hand-eye coordination, great feel, he can do lots of things with the ball and he understands how to play the game. Jonny is like Andy at 15 though in that he still has a lot of filling out to do as he is still quite a skinny little kid and it will be interesting to see where his body ends up at.”