As the best eight players in men’s singles gathered in London this weekend for the ATP’s end-of-season jamboree, the home of tennis again was the genial host in the background. It is like giving a party for your neighbours, but not being allowed to drink the champagne.
It is four years since Andy Murray beat Novak Djokovic to win the title, when he drove his body to the limit to celebrate his arrival at No 1 in the world. When the Nitto ATP finalists were posing behind face masks at the O2 Arena on Friday, Murray, now 33 and in the autumn of his career, was practising at the National Tennis Centre at Roehampton, grinding still to eke a little more out of his talent.
It has been a privilege and sometimes not a little difficult to witness Murray’s rise and struggle over the past decade and more, carrying British tennis on his aching back as he endured serial surgery on various body parts to win three grand slam titles and two Olympic gold medals, when others might have walked, or hobbled, away. But when he goes, what will be left? From this vantage point, not a lot – although a deal more than might have been hoped for when he arrived. If British tennis resides anywhere in the public imagination, it is in a limbo of vague expectation.
Scott Lloyd, chief executive at the LTA since 2017, has a tennis pedigree on a par with that of Tim Henman, with whom he learned the game at the Slater Squad, set up by his father, David. A talented junior (some say as good as Henman), Scott returns to the game tasked with reviving it with his corporate skills as much as his love of tennis. After three years, he finds himself under siege, much like his predecessors.
“I want all of the press pack, if that is such a thing, to be well informed,” he says. “There just hasn’t always been the opportunity or the interest from some of them. It’s not that I don’t want to. I just want a fair hearing.” So, here it is.
“All I’ve heard in the past is: ‘This isn’t right, that isn’t right.’ Now I’ve got the opportunity, with a really good team, to get my hands on it and try my best. I’m not saying we’re going to get everything right. I just want to move things forward and make a difference.”
The LTA has two high-performance centres, in Loughborough and Stirling. They are fed by regional development centres, and supported by age-related coaching programmes to encourage participation in schools, parks and other public places. Lloyd wants 96 indoor courts to reach all parts of the UK (although coronavirus has stalled the programme significantly, he says, as 10 of the existing 54 centres have not reopened).
The LTA receives £40m a year from the All England Club and has improved the NTC to the point where it is buzzing most days with players of all levels, who can use the state-of-the-art facilities and new Tour-level indoor clay courts.
What they don’t have a lot of – “yet”, Lloyd would contend – is a visible dividend. Ten years ago, Murray was the only British player in the ATP top 100, with James Ward next at 217; Elena Baltacha was alone in the WTA top 100. Now there are Dan Evans (32), Kyle Edmund (47) and Cam Norrie (70), alongside Jo Konta (14) and Heather Watson (59). In France, with a similar population but a much wider and better spread of local facilities, 10 years ago there were 11 men and four women in the world top 100 lists – and there still are.
Murray’s mother and former British Fed Cup captain, Judy, is among the sceptics. She thinks British tennis has squandered his legacy. “We’re a grand-slam nation and the biggest tennis prize [Wimbledon] is in our country, yet we have so little to show for it in terms of top, top players,” she says. “We’ve got Andy and [his brother] Jamie, but it hasn’t made a huge difference. It’s created a big fanbase – and people even wanting to try it – but without courts in state schools and public parks they can’t do it. If we want to change the culture, we have to really get our hands dirty.
“You can’t just sit behind a desk and wait for other people to do it. I go out and share it and show my sport. What we need is a delivery team across the country, teaching people how to teach. You only get so far if you do sessions with kids, young people or with young adults. For me, it’s investing in people. Nobody will persuade me otherwise.
“If you want to get more girls and women playing, you need more women around to create an environment in which women can thrive. If you consider we’re 50% of the population, and tennis is the most equal sport out there, it should be an absolute priority to grow the women’s side.”
Henman, for much of his career, was burdened with restoring national pride in the game. He reached six grand slam semi-finals – including four in five years at Wimbledon, – and had a hill named after him. He knows all about expectations. “The challenge has always been accessibility, to get our best athletes playing tennis,” he says. “If you look at our athletes at the past two Olympics, London 2012 and Rio 2016, there’s no doubt that we have an outstanding pool of talent in Great Britain. We need to get some of those talented boys and girls to play tennis. If the game is not accessible, we lose those kids to other sports.
“For at least 30 years I’ve heard people say: ‘You’ve got to be patient.’ That wears a little thin. Scott is someone I’ve known since I was eight or nine. He understands tennis in this country and the wider professional game.
“Scott has a business background and is extremely well qualified for this role. He asked me to get involved in the advisory group. I believe in what he’s doing, and I trust him as well. I think he’s done a good job so far.
“When I understand more of the infrastructures he’s putting in place, I believe in a lot of those things.
“In previous regimes, they made decisions I didn’t agree with. But now, the players are there, practising hard, having fun, pushing each other more and more. That’s a great focal point for the younger players. Trying to replicate that at the performance academies at Loughborough and Sterling, to have good communications so that you’re passing on ideas, that’s the way you have a joined-up performance pathway.”
This year’s World Tour Finals will be the 12th held in London and the last before they move to Turin for five years. Has the game passed us by? It is a question as nuanced as a delicate volley. The debate will rage for a while yet, certainly until someone emerges who can stop us talking about the past and maybe imagine a better future.