Saturday, 9 July 2011

Why Britain Is So Bad At Tennis

By Shane Thomas

Another Wimbledon fortnight has passed. The wait for a British singles champion at SW19 goes on. Not since 1977 has a British man or woman triumphed at Wimbledon, and our best current hope, Andy Murray has been unable to get past the semi-final stage. The same was true for his predecessor as Britain's No 1 tennis player, Tim Henman.

Throughout the Wimbledon tournament, a combination of the press and public make it one of the major stories of the summer - sporting or otherwise. The desire to celebrate a home success is fierce, only matched by the backlash once these expectations are not met.

But such expectations make little sense. Like a YouTube video of a dog embracing a cat, the behaviour of British people around Wimbledon is an odd phenomenon. The reason why British players fall short so often is quite simple; Britain is a nation that doesn't care about tennis.

I'm not talking about the players or coaches, or the parents that take their children to practice after school. There's even a few people who are genuine fans of the sport. But generally speaking, the UK couldn't care less. Yes, I'm sure plenty of you who are reading this now had your televisions tuned in to the BBC coverage, particularly when Mr Murray was playing. But now that Wimbledon's over, the key question is as follows; there's still six months left of the year, are you going to spend any of that time watching tennis?

Being an avid viewer of the sport for two of the fifty-two weeks of the year does not make one an expert. The fervour that Britain displays during Wimbledon is one of sport's great illusions. I'm sure foreign visitors to these shores when the tournament is on must think that we are a nation that have been swinging tennis racquets before we could even walk.

The fact is that tennis is a minority sport in this country. Courts for people to play on are at a premium. And forget playing at an organised level, unless you're financially comfortable. As well as being talented, Henman was lucky enough to have parents who built a court in his back garden to practice his skills. And while Andy Murray was hardly born with a silver spoon in his mouth, Britain can hardly claim him as evidence of our coaching system. Murray learnt his trade on the clay courts of the Sanchez-Casal Academy in Barcelona. But unlike Murray, not every potential tennis starlet has a mother with the foresight to know that her child needs to go abroad to bring his talent to fruition.

The issue of class is inextricably linked to British tennis. In this country it remains a sport for the middle & upper classes. Equipment doesn't come cheap, neither does the cost to be a member of a club where you can play. And while it hurts the domestic development of the sport, this class perception only seems to be a boon during Wimbledon. A large portion of the coverage and attention gets drawn to things that have nothing to do with what happens on the court; the long but civilised queues for tickets, the attention on well-dressed celebrities in the crowd (this only intensifies when the Royal Family show up), the way the crowd laugh at a pigeon alighting on the court as if it was an hour long tour-de-force by George Carlin, and yes, the strawberries & cream. Great swathes of the public seem to lap it up, and I'm not just talking about the strawberries.

These accoutrements are all well & good, but would someone mind explaining to me how they help Britain become a better tennis nation? As I write this, they are currently stuck in the hinterland regions of the Davis Cup, playing Luxembourg. This is a country whose second best player has never been ranked higher than 996. It stands to reason that we'd have a greater chance of sustained success if we have a larger pool of players to choose from. But it seems that in the inner cities, the only round ball that gets played with is white, rather than yellow & fuzzy - I'll give you a few seconds to get all juvenile innuendos out of your head.

So while there's nothing wrong with enjoying Wimbledon every year - it's rightly & deservedly one of the jewels in the sporting calendar, can we stop with the reactionary bile every time Andy Murray loses a match. He's not a tennis player because of the opportunities afforded to him, but in spite of them. And he's kept pace with the best in the world, so maybe we should cut him a little slack. In a country like Britain, Murray's not a failure, he's a miracle.

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