Recently there has been a turnaround in the fortunes of British Tennis, Ben Soper looks at how this has come about and why the future is bright for our country in the sport.
Just picture the scene: the city of New York is blanketed in darkness, but the location of the U.S. Open, Flushing Meadows, is bathed in floodlights. The raucous crowd – including the likes of Sir Sean Connery and Sir Alex Ferguson – have been here for just under five hours witnessing something very special. World Number 2 Novak Djokovic hits a forehand long in, what has been, testing conditions. Game, set and match! Finally, Andy Murray wins his maiden Grand Slam title (the first British player to win a Grand Slam since Fred Perry 76 years ago), lifting an expectation not only from the British public but most importantly, from himself.
Murray’s victory in the States is one of many triumphs for British tennis this year and it had been a long time in the making after years of improvement but no reward. With his first Grand Slam victory now under his belt, a gold medal at London 2012 and a finalist at Wimbledon, Murray has now closed the competitive gap on the ATP Tour that had previously existed between himself and the likes of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic. He is no longer chasing the pack; he is now a genuine contender for future Grand Slams which in the past had eluded him. This is due, in part, by Murray’s decision to part ways with former coach Alex Corretja (among many other predecessors) and enlist the help of former Grand Slam winner Ivan Lendel.
Armed with stoicism that would make a lump of marble blush and the tennis credentials to boot, Lendel has been a key factor in Murray’s success this year. Not only has Lendel made Murray even stronger, faster and assured that his return is still the most feared on the whole tour, he has introduced self-belief into Murray’s game. His confidence on court now oozes with such ferocity that even under pressure, he is still able to pull off the most sublime cross court winner or cheeky drop shot, when before, we were so used to him crumbling psychologically. Over the years, Murray’s physicality has developed year in, year out but his mental strength and lack of consistency was becoming a concern and it is this piece of the Andy Murray jigsaw that has finally been put into place.
Of course, it would be absurd and down right unfair to ignore the strides that the British women have made this season. It’s also no surprise that it is a member of the Murray clan that has been influential in this progression. Judy Murray – who has been involved in tennis coaching and various schemes for many years – has now been assigned to captain the British Fed Cup squad and it is two young players from the squad’s ranks that have really rallied up the WTA rankings this year.
With no disrespect to Elena Baltacha and Anne Keothavong, it is Laura Robson and Heather Watson who harness this current potential. At the ages of 18 and 20 respectively, both have made massive strides on the WTA tour this year. Robson, after winning a silver medal partnering Andy Murray at London 2012, she went on to be a finalist at the Guangzhou Open. All though eventually losing in three sets, she shot up in the rankings to a career high of #57. Heather Watson is currently ranked #49 thanks to her WTA win at the Japan Open, which is the first such win for any British woman since Sara Gomer in 1988. Both show the signs to consistently challenge for the top honours on the tour as well as Grand Slam titles, which is something that the British women’s game has sorely missed.
However, with this success comes questions regarding the state of British tennis at lower levels. With Murray, Robson and Watson having trained abroad as youngsters to get where they are, are the standards of tennis facilities here in Britain good enough? This year for example, funding for the LTA from Sport England was cut by up to £500,000, due to a drop in people just playing tennis. By cutting, you only inhibit potential and a drop in numbers is always inevitable. Hopefully, with this new found success running through the British game at a professional level, one can only hope that burgeoning youngsters and training camps alike, have the ambition and the vision to stride for the excellence tennis here in Britain has experienced this year.