For nearly 77 years, Britain was missing the glories that it, as the very birthplace of the sport, the host of its most prestigious tournament had enjoyed. Fred Perry was its last big tennis star, and ever since, British tennis fans had players who came close –just not close enough, like six-time semi-finalist and former British No. 1 Tim Henman.
And then came Andy Murray. The first big tennis star from the United Kingdom since Fred Perry so many years earlier, the Scot, in the span of only a few years, swept almost every tennis glory imaginable –including the most elusive of them all, the World No. 1 ranking, which had evaded the country for so long, despite so many coming ever so close.
In the years that Murray ruled the roost – and perhaps in the few years before, it was almost as if British tennis had truly seen a renaissance right at the top, after Henman got within arm’s reach, but did not make it beyond the threshold.
That was spurred on by the fact that the 2012 Olympics were also held in London, affording Great Britain the chance to go for gold, quite literally –and gold they did achieve.
In the wake of Murray’s successes, British tennis programs –for men and women, hit a high. Funding was said to have increased significantly and indeed, a number of programs appeared to have cropped up at the time, perhaps riding the high of Murray’s successes –which sustained for a number of years afterwards. In fact, the country saw quite the uptick of a number of young tennis stars who had already been on the up and up when Murray first started. With both Murray brothers hitting number one at one point in time –Andy in the singles and Jamie in the doubles, it seemed that the country had finally seen success in the men’s tennis.
But earlier this year, following Murray’s first-round loss at the Australian Open to Roberto Bautista-Agut, the 32-year-old said participation had been “dropping” steadily, and that Britain’s tennis governing body, the LTA (Lawn Tennis Association) had not been doing enough to capitalise on British tennis stars’ successes on the big stage.
In an interview then, Murray had said “I guess those are the things that are important for the future. You need to get kids playing, you need to have the facilities that allow them to do that and I am not sure Britain has really capitalised on the last seven or eight years of success that we’ve had really, whether it be myself, my brother, Jo [Konta], Kyle [Edmund], Davis Cup, those sorts of things. I’m not sure how much we’ve done there.”
Interestingly, it was the LTA themselves who had borne the coaching expenses for Andy Murray’s early training in Barcelona, but since then, relations seem to have thawed.
It appears, then, that the country that birthed the Industrial Revolution has failed to, as it were, strike while the iron is hot.
Is the LTA doing enough?
Murray has been far from the only player to suggest the LTA has not provided enough support to promote up and coming players on tour. Marcus Willis –who made a show through qualifying in 2016 to play – and eventually lose to Wimbledon favourite Roger Federer in Round two that year, said in a podcast only weeks ago that the LTA had “failed to produce elite male players” – a veiled reference to the fact that Andy Murray, who trained at Barcelona’s Sanchez-Casal academy – as did Jo Konta, was not technically an alumnus of the LTA at all.
How are Britain’s players on the world stage?
To put things in perspective, Britain’s No. 1 men’s player – 24-year-old Kyle Edmund, is currently at 30th overall in the men’s singles rankings, while women’s No. 1 Johanna Konta, with a series of convincing performances in the past months, is the women’s No. 18. While Cameron Norrie has been steadying himself in the men’s rankings this year, Konta – who has had some struggles with form, has turned her own slump around this year as well – in far more significant fashion.
Still dependent on Murray and Konta for glories
As Edmund, still nursing his knee injury, blew a two-set lead against famed Grand Slam draw mixer-upper Fernando Verdasco to go down in five last week, British tennis hopes seemed pinned partly on Konta and still, partly, on Murray himself. Playing the doubles with Pierre-Hugues Herbert and the mixed doubles with none other than Serena Williams herself, you almost got a sense that it was still Murray whom fans were looking to for British tennis glories.
Now, with Murray having exited both disciplines, it would appear fans are now awaiting what the 32-year-old has said will be a long and arduous return to the singles, should he be able to do it. Still, the pressure on Murray is quite evident, and quite immense. No men’s player from the country has made as many Majors finals as Murray did – or has, over his career, or won as many Grand Slams in the Open Era. Britain may have had Tim Henman, but even Henman never really had Murray’s successes.
At the same time, however, Laura Robson, Naomi Broady and others had already been building themselves up the ranks – as had a more familiar name to the average tennis watcher today, Johanna Konta. Currently at No. 18, the 28-year-old Konta has been seeing a steady, even-paced climb up the rankings, with her inspired performance at the French Open playing no small part.
Whether No. 1 or No. 18, Konta – with her openness, her results, her skill – and the firm, strong way in which she has put British women’s tennis on the map this year, is already a heroine.
If there is one thing, however, that British tennis may have going for it, it is is that their rising stars are getting younger and younger – and beginning to make some sort of impact. One such star is the 20-year-old Jay Clarke, who in 2017 with compatriot Marcus Willis (of Roger Federer match fame), made it to the third round of Wimbledon, having ousted the defending champions Pierre-Hugues Herbert and Nicolas Mahut.
Since then, Clarke has bettered himself quickly, rising up the rankings to hit the top 200 this year. With another young rising star of British tennis – Harriet Dart, Clarke made the semi-finals of the mixed doubles at Wimbledon last year, defeating the top seeded Mate Pavic and Gabriela Dabrowski in Round three, despite having come into the tournament on a wildcard.
Clarke has, over this season, gone from a ranking of 237 at the start of the year, to 169 currently, so given some time, he could well mature into a strong player, and at only 20 years old, he has the time and space in which to do it.
Meanwhile, Great Britain – the home of tennis, as it were, has three tennis players in the top 100 – their top-ranked, World No 30 Kyle Edmund, Cameron Norrie, currently the World No 55, and the oldest of the trio, 29-year-old Dan Evans at No 61. Evans in particular has had a dramatic rise up the rankings, starting at No. 190 in January of this year to come to 61st. It is for Edmund that that trend has been reversed, with the 24-year-old’s injury recuperation struggles leading to a drop in his rankings over the past few months.
But aside from Johanna Konta’s consistencies, Britain’s “big wins” still seem fixated on its surprise victories and glories – such as 2016’s glory story of Marcus Willis, getting into pre-qualifying to make the second round proper at Wimbledon. Willis’ story had been one of the talking points for the country at Wimbledon that year; the part-time coach who had almost quit tennis only months earlier, went on to face Roger Federer and enjoyed a raucous, supportive crowd despite his loss.
So too was the story of Clarke and Dart’s unexpected wildcard run to the semi-finals at Wimbledon last year. If GBR are to rely on surprise victories, it is perhaps indicative that their top men’s players are not as consistent on the Grand Slam stage as the LTA – and fans – might have liked.
Barring Murray, and the iconic Tim Henman before him, none of Britain’s more recent tennis stars have really been particularly comfortable on their home surface of grass.
Indeed, Konta herself has struggled with being British singles tennis’ biggest – and perhaps lone – star at the moment, and faced with patronising and incessant questions from the press, it is perhaps unfair pressure on the 28-year-old, just as it was on Andy Murray only a handful of years ago.
Perhaps the transition, too, has been difficult; Great Britain has had one singles junior champion in the past ten years – Heather Watson, who is currently outside the top 100 and has had middling results at best in the singles, while their only boys singles champion in the past ten years – Oliver Golding, who took a sabbatical from the sport in 2014 and has since played qualifying at one ITF tournament in 2017. This might indicate then, that the LTA has not been able to find young tennis players and train them early, instead relying on older players – which could be an issue they will want to look at, if they are looking to build longer-term tennis prospects.
For now, the pressure is still on Konta and Murray – and while Murray is perhaps more seasoned in the time he has had to handle it, that unfair pressure on Johanna Konta could impact her phenomenal return of form this year – and not through fault of her own.
British Expectations have always, perhaps, been Great; perhaps it is time associations – and the media – stepped up to the plate to buoy them.
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