Carl Maes talks about British tennis
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From the Sunday Herald (UK), April 27, 2003
With Britain's two great hopes in the twilight of their careers, the future of tennis is looking bleak, says Eleanor Preston.
Greg Rusedski pulled out of a tournament in Valencia this week. If this momentous news passed you by it is because the perennially injured British No 2 has not played since September, and these days he will only be regarded as newsworthy if and when he ever picks up a racquet again.
Meanwhile Tim Henman, who has played only four events this year and won one match, is busy icing and massaging his delicate shoulder in the hope that he will be fit to play this week in Munich.
Thus the two great hopes of British tennis are seeing out the twilight of their careers, going from one injury crisis to the next and forever patching themselves up from one day to the next.
And behind them? A horde of fresh-faced, talented youngsters jostling for the chance to replace the ageing Henman and Rusedski (28 and 29 respectively)? If only.
Alex Bogdanovic, widely tipped as the Next Big Thing, is languishing at 493 in the rankings and appears to be going backwards. Between him and Rusedski at 70 in the rankings are journeymen, making up the numbers just as they have done for years.
As what will undoubtedly come to be regarded as the golden era of British tennis draws to a close, the reality of just how threadbare British tennis looks without its top two players is starting to sink in.
And if the Lawn Tennis Association's job of persuading Britain's youth to take up tennis is hard now, how much more difficult is it going to be when Henman is not there to dominate the news pages during Wimbledon?
Carl Maes, who coached current World No 2 Kim Clijsters and has been brought in by the LTA to revit alise coaching here, has no doubt that Henman and Rusedski are vital to the LTA's long term goal of getting more children to take the sport up.
Unfortunately, as Maes points out, thus far the non-existent tennis infrastructure in Britain, which is dominated by elitist clubs, meant any children who have been inspired to take up the game have been put off by the lack of places to play.
'It's very important to take advantage of the fact that they are there and I don't think that we have exploited that nearly enough,' said Maes.
'Last year in one region in Belgium, which is the size of Yorkshire, they had 10,000 extra kids playing tennis because of the success of Belgian players. Imagine 10,000 kids in Yorkshire picking up a racquet for the first time.
'It couldn't happen here because you can only handle that if you have courts and places for them to play. You need a role model like Tim, he's a great media guy and he's great for kids and I think children can really look up to him.
'Everybody in the pub was talking about Tim doing well but you need to get the kids inspired and get them to go to a court around the corner and play. We missed that opportunity.'
Maes was brought in prior to Henman's former coach David Felgate, who, as Performance Director, is now charged with trying to find more players in the mould of his former protégé.
Felgate's first priority is dragging tennis clubs into the 21st century. Along with new Director of Tennis Operations Rebecca Miskin -- whose last job was at the ultra-hip Ministry of Sound -- Felgate is charged with changing the culture in British tennis clubs, where, traditionally, children are seldom seen and certainly never on a tennis court.
'When I was a child I very nearly gave up playing tennis because I found clubs incredibly intimidating places to go,' said Miskin. 'We want the tennis club to be somewhere that kids want to hang out, not just to play tennis but to do other sports, to socialise, and to mess about.'
Changing the culture of tennis clubs will take years. Under a scheme started by Frenchman Patrice Hagelauer and continued by Felgate, the LTA have set themselves a target of getting just 200 of the country's 2,300 tennis clubs to qualify as 'Performance Clubs', ie places where kids with talent can actually flourish. At the moment just 120 are deemed up to the task.
Unfortunately for an organisation that makes, on average, about £32.4 million last year from the Wimbledon profits, and has just secured another £9 million in lottery grants from the government, it's not the sort of thing money alone can buy.
'The end game is to get more kids playing tennis,' said Felgate. 'Accessibility is the most important thing. You have to give kids the chance to play if they want to.'
Whether they want to or not may depend on whether they have anyone to inspire them, something Maes is only too aware of.
'I hope Tim and Greg hang around for a couple more years. We need them.'
o Scots top seed Miles Maclaggan won the final of the British Tour tournament in Bournemouth yesterday, beating Jim May of Kent 6-2, 6-2.