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Friday, September 24, 2021

Special British tennis report: Why finding the next Emma Raducanu is going to be as hard as ever

These coaching costs are the biggest issue for would-be tennis professionals, and one reason why so many talented young athletes opt for less expensive team sports – primarily football – instead. Yes, the Raducanu family lived in a pleasant and leafy area of south-east London, but they didn’t have the independent means to fund full-time coaching plus occasional overseas travel, which is what a junior tennis career requires.

The LTA’s wilderness years

In 2016, Talent ID closed. “The system has been very judgmental at an early age,” said Peter Keane, then the LTA performance director. “I think there is complete consensus that it didn’t work and did more harm than good.”

This was part of an extraordinary slash-and-burn policy pursued by Draper’s successor, Michael Downey. He hired the late Bob Brett, a brilliant tracksuit coach with no managerial experience, to effectively run the performance department. The attitude of the time was that anyone outside the world’s top 100 was, by definition, a failure.

Ironically, Downey’s brutal performance-department cutbacks – for which the then LTA chairman David Gregson must also be held accountable – arrived just as Murray was delivering the finest season of his career and reaching world No 1. Many believe that they stalled momentum within the British game at the worst possible time.

The LTA have access to the Wimbledon surplus, which runs to around £40-50m annually. And yet they didn’t get around to proposing a replacement system for two years, until Simon Timson – yet another performance director – unveiled his vision of two shiny and ambitious National Academies based in Loughborough and Stirling in 2018.

There are now 19 children training across these two Academies, which aim to provide a total service of coaching, fitness and education (although the Stirling branch has not had the smoothest start in life and recently saw Brazilian head coach Leo Azevedo leave his post citing family issues).

Will they work? It’s impossible to know. As Raducanu’s case demonstrates, results can take decades to filter through. What we can say is that the LTA’s talent-development programme has never seen so much invested in so few. And that the rungs at the very bottom of the ladder – those that precede the offering of National Academy places at 13 or 14 – have largely been sawn off.

One of the people at the heart of Talent ID was Simon Jones, the former LTA head of coach development who now holds the same title at Chelsea FC. “If I could turn back time, I would change the name,” he says now, “because the system was about so much more than just identifying who the LTA should support financially. It was about a network of scouting and competition, plus the introduction of mini-tennis across the country. It was much-maligned and too radical for many people. But the key point is that we were identifying 400 kids to support. People can argue over whether they were always the right kids, but before Talent ID, we weren’t supporting any.

“There are plenty of critical questions about the selection process,” Jones continued, “but the one thing you shouldn’t do is stop selecting at all – and that’s what has happened at the lower stages of the pathway. People say that young kids should just play and enjoy it, until they come to realise that they want to turn professional. But the reality – which many find unpalatable – is that the ones who make it big have often taken their sport incredibly seriously from a very early age. I see it here at Chelsea with people like Mason Mount, Reece James, Tammy Abraham and Callum Hudson-Odoi. It takes a lot of courage from the LTA board to really understand the concept of tennis development and invest properly in it.”

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