By Tim Groves
British tennis should have been heading into 2016 riding the crest of a wave after a first Davis Cup triumph for 79 years, but question marks about the governance of the Lawn Tennis Association meant the overriding emotion was far from unbridled joy.
Add that first Davis Cup victory since 1936 to Andy Murray’s many successes in recent years and Johanna Konta’s performance in becoming the first British woman to reach a Grand Slam semi-final for 33 years at the Australian Open in January and the profile of tennis in this country is as high as it has been for decades.
LTA reputation at low ebb
Conversely, the LTA’s reputation is at a low ebb and, regardless of the bright spots, it appears to be losing the all important battle to boost participation.
The governing body was instrumental in Konta gaining UK citizenship in 2012 – seven years after she moved to the country from Australia – but she has said the funding cuts it imposed on her in 2014 “jeopardised” her career.
Murray’s criticism has been even more damning. He revealed in 2015 that he’d had just one discussion with LTA chief executive Michael Downey in the two years since he took the job and that he didn’t want to waste his time talking to an organisation where “nothing ever gets done”.
The current world number two won the US Open and the Olympic title in 2012, Wimbledon in 2013 and then led Britain to Davis Cup glory before winning the BBC Sports Personality of the Year Award last year, but he insists that those in charge of tennis administration on these shores have done little to capitalise on those successes.
The £40 million National Training Centre in Roehampton, south west London is less than a decade old, but is now barely used and widely regarded as a failure, with many people commenting that the money should have been spent on a host of cheaper centres in different locations that focused on the grass roots game, rather than the elite level.
The LTA has also invested in excess of another £40 million in improving facilities over the past eight years and upwards of £5 million per year is still available for work on courts and clubs up and down the country.
Its mission statement is to ‘Help more people to play more often’ and it’s certainly failing in that regard, with the number of people over 16 playing at least once a month having plummeted by 26 per cent from 988,200 in 2009 to 730,800 last year.
Playing numbers do swell every year during the Wimbledon fortnight and tennis isn’t helped by its status as a summer sport in a country where the summer doesn’t last as long as in many others around the world. But the weather can’t be blamed for falling participation.
Competition for attention among a myriad of other established and up and coming sports is as fierce as ever and the fact tennis still hasn’t managed to shake off its image as an elitist sport in the UK remains a major problem for the LTA.
Senior figures within the organisation will tell you that hard work is being done – a grand legacy strategy promising 10,000 free tennis lessons to children was launched recently – but it’s generally still seen as out of touch and accused of prioritising the top few per cent of players ahead of the masses.
The new initiative to recruit 1,000 of the country’s best tennis coaches to deliver 10,000 free six-week coaching courses to children aged between five and eight who have either never played before or don’t play very often is a positive one, but it’s just a start.
The cold, hard fact remains that overall participation in tennis has fallen worryingly over the past 10 years since Sport England’s first Active People Survey and the LTA is struggling in its mission to persuade the wider public that they do have “the opportunity to play in a welcoming, affordable and safe environment”.
In the immediate aftermath of Murray’s Wimbledon and Olympic victories in 2012, tennis participation soared by 12 per cent, with almost 100,000 more people playing at least once a month than before his success, but the figure had reverted to pre-2012 levels within a couple of years.
Boosting participation is far from an easy objective, but Murray’s criticism of the LTA’s failure to capitalise on increased interest and achieve lasting gains appears to be well placed, despite a slight rise in playing numbers between October 2014 and September 2015.
There is undoubtedly some good work being done and only time will tell whether the LTA has turned a corner and realised that substantial change is needed.
It will take more than hope to reverse tennis’ fortunes though and if a first British Wimbledon men’s singles title win for 77 years hasn’t done it, it requires a significant leap of faith to believe that a first Davis Cup title for 79 years is the panacea the sport in the UK has been waiting for.
Expert’s view: Keith Carder, Lawn Tennis Association head of competition
Keith Carder has acknowledged there is “a lot of work to do”, but he believes tennis faces the same challenges as many other sports against a backdrop of declining participation figures in general in the UK.
“Participation is definitely a challenge for us, but we’re only at the start of a four-year plan,” he says.
“In time, when things start to kick in, all the work we’re doing with local authorities, clubs, coaches and on recreational competitions will hopefully see participation increase and help stop the number of players dropping out of the sport.
“We know we’ve got a lot of work to do, shifting the sport, stopping it declining and to get more people playing the game, but I think it’s actually a challenge for a lot of sports.
“We need to make people understand that tennis is a lot cheaper than they think.”
Carder’s final point is an important one. It’s not wildly expensive to join a lot of tennis clubs in Britain and both clubs and the LTA deserve credit for that when you consider it costs between £120,000-£400,000 to install a tennis court, depending on the surface, and between £3,600-£7,600 per year to maintain one.
Floodlights also cost around £45,000 to install, plus £2,400 per year to run, according to the LTA’s figures, but those significant costs haven’t made club membership fees exorbitantly expensive and the number of club players over the age of 16 has actually increased from 182,000 five years ago to 228,700 today.