Nice girls finish last
The Big Interview - Virginia Wade
Sunday June 27, 2004
At 3.37 on Friday, when Elena Baltacha delivered a weak forehand service return on Centre Court to lose 6-4 6-4 to Jennifer Capriati, Britain's last representative in the women's singles was on her way home, having reached only the second round. The British women competed valiantly, of course. Anne Keothavong, Emily Webley-Smith, Jane O'Donoghue and Baltacha managed to trouble players hundreds of places above them in the world rankings, but the much-vaunted new generation of British women still could not begin to compete at the top level.
Virginia Wade, Wimbledon champion in 1977, has witnessed many false dawns. Jo Durie being number five in the world in the mid-1980s, for example, or Annabel Croft and Sam Smith's top-100 rankings in the late 80s and 90s respectively, not to mention Sue Barker's Wimbledon semi-final appearance in the same year as Wade's success.
So what does Wade think of the present generation's showing at Wimbledon? 'So much of this depends on the draw and there are lots of players the British girls could have beaten. They have made big strides and no one has played badly. It was very promising; we started with six and if next year we can have 10, then who knows, eventually we might do really well.'
Despite her encouraging words, Wade believes that the malaise in British women's tennis, which so lacks a Tim Henman or even a Greg Rusedski, is a cultural thing. The British national characteristic of apologising when someone steps on our toes means that, although we are celebrated the world over for our good manners, we are regarded as an also-ran as a tennis nation. In short, we are too damned nice to win.
'I teach 10- and 11-year-olds and they are nice and shy and they wouldn't dream of making a fuss,' Wade says. 'I'm not saying that to achieve you need to lose your manners, but that hunger to win is essential and I'm not sure the two can coexist in the British psyche.'
She believes it comes down to a particular British character trait. 'Young players are often unwilling to commit themselves, or are not prepared to put themselves on the line, because they are scared of failure. In the end, winning matches is about what opinion you have of yourself and whether you think you are good enough.'
Of the present crop of young British players, a noticeable proportion come from immigrant backgrounds - Keothavong, Baltacha and, in the men's game, Alex Bogdanovich, and Wade herself spent much of her childhood in South Africa - so maybe they are not infected with the British disease of 'No, after you'. 'It does strike you, doesn't it?,' Wade says. 'Maybe Elena benefits from that Ukrainian thing of just go and do it. But the young Russians coming through are nearly all from tennis-playing or sports backgrounds, so is it nature or nurture? You do wonder.
'But I don't think we're lacking tennis genes in this country. It's social genes we're lacking. British people are too apologetic. People aren't prepared to stand up for themselves or demand higher standards. I suppose I'm talking about the American thing of if they're unhappy with something, they say they're unhappy. People should have patience, but we should also have the ethic of having to deliver.'
So can young British players learn from Americans? 'In this respect, I'm not sure they can,' Wade says. 'They over-analyse everything and that's not us. We should be a bit more like Australians because, if it is a nature argument, they are more genetically like us. The perfect tennis players for me are the Rod Lavers and the Roy Emersons. They had superb natural talent and just got on and did it.'
But compare the average young British teenage player with her American counterpart and you quickly see why Britons do not measure up. The American system hothouses players from as young as eight or nine and, while they receive a decent education on site at tennis academies, sport is everything. Wade says: 'I think there is this message that comes across that, in order to do well, you have to give up the rest of your life. I can't blame any teenager, particularly if they have brains and want to go to university, but I would always say try to achieve what you can now and then later you can enjoy your success and have fun.'
A major problem is how old British girls are when they take up the sport seriously, which means they are always playing catch-up, as Wade puts it. British players are usually competing in satellite tournaments well into their twenties, but the average age at which players break into the top 100 is 14 or 15; the average age of the top 100 is 26. In other words, once they get into the top 100, they stay there, so the important thing is to get British players past the magic 100 barrier.
But therein lies another problem. 'How would you feel if you were told your 14-year-old daughter could go to a Florida academy?' asks Wade. 'Parents don't want to take their child out of school and send them to the States because they don't know whether the sacrifices will be worth it. It's an incredibly difficult decision.'
Wade also believes that, because the British game is rarely put in a realistic context (Keothavong, the British number one, has a world ranking of 188), there is unfair pressure on players to succeed, often beyond their true ability and especially at Wimbledon. 'It's hard to be on your own at the top because it's not easy to get any relative idea of where you are. It helped me enormously when Sue Barker came through because the pressure was off and I had someone to compare myself to.'
Jeremy Bates, head of performance at the Lawn Tennis Association and captain of Great Britain's Davis Cup team, agrees with much of what Wade says about the British lack of confidence, but he is adamant that the LTA are making progress. 'You can't change a culture,' he says, 'but you can change the competition. What we are trying to do is vastly increase the level of competition our young players are involved in so they are always being pushed by others coming through. But I reject the notion that we're not a competitive nation.'
One criticism often made of the LTA is that they focus on just a few dozen young players at any one time in their academies. 'It's not that we're focusing on too few, it's that there are too few to focus on,' says Bates. 'It's about maximising potential. Yes, we have five players in the top 350, but if we can get another 10 girls ranked 400 and another 20 girls ranked 500 and another 30 girls ranked 600, eventually someone is going to break through.
'And often it's a question of money. Ninety-five per cent of children in Spanish academies are privately funded, but in Britain everyone comes to us for funding and there is a limit to what we can do.'
Money will always be an issue. Our closest tennis neighbour, France, has been given government money for 20 years and has seen the reward with a steady stream of top-100 players. In the UK, most of tennis's income comes from Wimbledon and sponsorship and only this year have the Government started part-funding LTA projects as one aspect of their campaign to reduce obesity in children.
Wade is tennis ambassador for the insurance company Hastings Direct, the main sponsor of the pre-Wimbledon grasscourt tournament in Eastbourne. She advises the company about where to place sponsorship money; in Eastbourne, they announced that they would give £100,000 to any British female player to reach the fourth round at Wimbledon. Their money always looked safe, but Wade believes it is a move in the right direction.
It's very good to reward people for success and this is a good carrot,' she says. 'I'd rather this than the easy opportunities like the wild cards they used to give British players for Wimbledon [there is now a wild-card play-off]. The free ride into Wimbledon gave players a false sense of where they are.'
A tennis career can put pressure on mothers and fathers, too - the sport is littered with divorced parents. 'It's awful,' says Wade. 'It's so upsetting to see families argue over money, but that's what happens if the player becomes the breadwinner for the family.'
For Wade, who coached for four years after she retired from playing and still takes tennis clinics, it always comes back to attitude. 'What I see and hear over and over when players are on the fringe of success is "I need a sponsor" and "I had an injury". They're mental crutches. You want someone to be thinking the right way and I say to parents the most valuable thing you could do is to get your child a sports psychologist.'
Wade believes that the LTA, under director of performance David Felgate, are heading in the right direction. There has been a root-and-branch reform of the organisation in the past year and a massive increase in the number of young children picking up a racket for the first time under their programmes. The belief is, according to Bates, that if you get them young enough and make the sport 'sexy' enough, you will keep talented youngsters in the game. While acknowledging that the LTA are on the right track, Wade says that it will always ultimately come down to players believing in themselves.
'We need to get them to believe in a solid, modest way that they're capable of winning, but only if they put in the effort and commitment. You hear kids say, "I want to win Wimbledon." Well I say, "How about winning a small tournament first?" You have to win today and tomorrow and the day after before you can think of the big one.'
1 Anne Keothavong 188
2 Jane O'Donoghue 243
3 Amanda Janes 246
4 Elena Baltacha 331
5 Emily Webley-Smith 349
6 Sarah Borwell 429
7 Karen Patterson 441
8 Melanie South 452
9 Hannah Collin 477
10 Chantal Coombs 493