Improving the Bollettieri way: two British youngsters hit the courts in Florida
Two young British tennis players are first to benefit from a pioneering scheme involving the 'Independent' columnist's legendary academy in Florida
By Nick Harris
Published: 20 December 2005
Ask Jennifer and Jessica Ren about the relative merits of Sheffield and Florida as grooming grounds for upcoming tennis players and it seems America holds the aces in some key departments.
The sisters, aged 12 and 11, are Britain's brightest young prospects in their age group, and have just spent 10 days at Nick Bollettieri's academy as part of a fact-finding mission, hosted and principally funded by Bollettieri, and embraced by the Lawn Tennis Association. The initiative, to encourage development of young British prospects, was first reported in The Independent in the summer.
"There's a load more players than at home, more opponents who will really challenge you," says Jennifer. "And lots more courts, and surfaces, which meant we had more chances to practise on clay before the Orange Bowl."
Both girls made storming starts to that event, which started in Miami on Saturday and is one of the most important youth tournaments in the world game.
Jennifer adds that there were also a range of established stars using the Bollettieri facilities. Among them were the 2004 Wimbledon champion Maria Sharapova, the Czech Republic's 16-year-old world No 15, Nicole Vaidisova, and Taylor Dent, Max Mirnyi and Tommy Haas from the men's tour.
Jessica agrees that being in proximity to the pros was a motivation, although the daily routine was a shock to the system. "At home I get up at 7am," she said. "At the academy we started our morning sessions at 5.30am, which meant getting up at 5am. By the weekend, when we got up at 6.30am, it felt like a lie-in."
Yet for all the differences to home, it is the similarities that are most heartening for the British game, as is the fact that the girls were not worlds apart in class from the top juniors at Bollettieri's. Bollettieri himself attests to that elsewhere in these pages.
The girls' mother, Suzie, and their LTA coach, Kate Warne-Holland, were also gratified to see the girls hold their own. "It has definitely been beneficial to have an opportunity to see how top players work in that environment," says Suzie Ren.
"The place rocks and rolls all day, every day," says Warne-Holland. "It's impressive to see the intensity. As for Nick Bollettieri himself, I can't rave about him enough. He is a driving force. But I was also glad to see that overall it was very much the same kind of training programme we use at home, in terms of sessions, drills, physical work. I think we can take a lot of positives from the fact that we're doing good work ourselves. We haven't come to America and suddenly seen things we've never seen before. But we can go back and report on all the things we've learnt, to try to improve what we already have. That has got to be a priority for any coach, to be open-minded."
The current LTA regime, where David Felgate has headed the élite playing side as the performance director for the past two years, can take some credit for a changing mindset. Not so many years ago, the LTA was quite sniffy about funding its players to train at foreign centres.
It also faces a constant PR
battle to convince the public it is moving forward. Only last month, Andy Murray said that his brother, Jamie, had been "ruined" by an unprogressive LTA training regime in Cambridge, failing to stress, on the day of his remarks, that that was six years ago.
And in the past week, Britain's 15-year-old Jade Curtis, ranked at No 72 in the world Under-18s, hit the headlines when her parents complained they received "only" £30,000 of LTA money per year towards the £90,000 spent annually on her development. The family are selling their house in Plymouth to fund Jade's progress, in the US.
But Felgate is bullish about the LTA's new approach, which for the last year, and in the future, is to promote choice, either within the LTA system or outside. To paraphrase, he does not give two hoots where players get better, as long as they do.
"Choose what's right for your player, and the LTA will do what it can to help," he said. "We're already helping to fund players at Bollettieri's, including Heather Watson [a 13-year-old from Guernsey] and Graeme Dyce [a 16-year-old from Edinburgh]. We've got players training in Spain, in private academies in England, in Scotland, lots of places. We have funds to give, and you have to make judgement calls, based on individual players. We're not perfect. There are grey areas, and anomalies, but we're doing what we can. There will always be people who say, 'We're not being funded properly'. But if you ask me whether I'm comfortable we're making progress, then yes.
"I don't like saying, 'Give us time to see the results', because frankly everyone's heard it before. But I'm confident in what we're doing."
Suzie Ren and her husband, Alan, who moved to England from their native China 15 years ago, back him up. "The LTA are trying their best," says Suzie, whose daughters are benefiting from the new flexibility. In September, the LTA granted permission, and funds, for Warne-Holland, a national Under-14s coach, to spend 20-plus hours a week on the girls' development.
In the same month the girls gained permission from their school in Sheffield to opt out of certain lessons - such as food technology, art and PE - to dedicate more time to tennis. Their typical regime now involves up to 20 hours on court, sessions at Loughborough University's academy, and weekends playing tournaments.
Suzie Ren picks out two aspects of their time at Bollettieri's that highlight the benefits of a campus regime. "My girls go to a normal school, so it's about fitting tennis around their schoolwork. At Bollettieri's you fit the schoolwork around your tennis. It's a key difference in emphasis, as is playing competitive matches every day, which you can't do in England because there simply aren't the opponents."
A facility like Bollettieri's provides schooling on site and competition at all levels, as well as catering for every aspect of physical, mental and social training, down to drama classes for those who might one day face the media as professionals. Many students of Bollettieri have no such dreams, and are attending in the hope of "only" winning sports scholarships to American universities.
Felgate argues, justifiably, that the LTA, as a national federation, is about a much wider development of tennis than any commercial academies, which benefit from economies of scale and whose aim is to make money. And while 5am starts and a tennis-centred life and being away from home suits some, it does not work for others.
Warne-Holland's hope is that as the Ren sisters develop, they will be able to use a variety of facilities - whether in the UK or Spain or Bollettieri's - as and when necessary. As with Felgate, she says that choice and flexibility are key, as is getting Britain's best coaches out on court as much as possible, not sat behind desks, pushing paper, as in bygone years.
As for her students, they just want to keep working. "It was hard work at Bollettieri's but we learnt a lot," says Jennifer Ren. "Now I want to train a bit harder when I get home, train like I was there."