Fed Cup success masks Britain’s tennis malaise

robsonFebruary is normally a fallow month in the tennis calendar, coming after the excitement of the Australian Open but before the clay court season really gets going. However this year it has seen some encouraging signs for British tennis, with the performances of Britain’s women in the Fed Cup. Competing in Europe/Africa Group 1 they have comfortably beaten Hungary, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Portugal and Bulgaria. This means that for the second year in succession they have won the chance to compete in a play-off which could mean promotion to World Group II and a place back amongst tennis’s elite nations.

The fact that British tennis, despite Britain hosting one of tennis’ four Grand Slams, has fallen so low continues to be a source of national angst, albeit one that only rears its head for the most part during Wimbledon fortnight. Britain’s current Fed Cup team however have a great chance of going some way towards rectifying this. In their forthcoming play-off they’ve been drawn against Argentina, a side with no top 100 ranked players in the women’s game. While an away tie on clay is likely to be tricky, boasting two players ranked in the world’s top 50 in Heather Watson and Laura Robson will undoubtedly inspire confidence.

While the team came up short in their play-off last year against Sweden they have improved hugely since then. Robson reached her first ATP tour final last year, while Watson went one better and won the Japan Open. They have also been joined by Johanna Konta, who made her Fed Cup debut in February’s ties. As all three are under 22 and have steadily improved their world rankings over the last twelve months, they could potentially form the bedrock of a talented British team for years to come.

The final two members of the squad, Anne Keothavong and Elena Baltacha (non-playing) have extensive Fed cup experience. While they perhaps lack the talent of Watson and Robson, this has helped to give the squad some balance. Furthermore, under the watchful eye of Judy Murray, a woman who knows a thing or two about developing up-and-coming tennis talent, the squad should continue to thrive. For the first time in years Britain may be able to establish itself in the world leagues of Fed Cup tennis.

If there is one note of caution that needs to be sounded about Britain’s rise in fortunes it’s the background of Britain’s top young players. Watson moved to Nick Bollettieri’s top tennis academy in Florida when she was twelve and consequently developed largely outside of the Lawn Tennis Association’s system. Likewise Konta, who has Hungarian parentage, and was mostly raised in Australia did not come through the British junior system. Robson alone learnt most of her tennis in Britain. This is nothing new of course for British tennis; Greg Rusedski, for example, grew up in Canada.

However, if Britain is to have a long-term future as a tennis powerhouse this needs to change. The Lawn Tennis Association is clearly failing to do its job in inspiring young people to take up the sport if many of those coming through its ranks are those that originally come from countries like Australia where tennis has great popularity. Similarly if those like Heather Watson, who hails from Guernsey, feel the need to look elsewhere to receive the best training, it would suggest that the tennis authorities in Britain have failed to create the infrastructure necessary to develop top players.

Far from every family with a talented young tennis-playing teenager will have the belief, ability or funds necessary to send their child overseas to receive top class coaching. Consequently British tennis will remain a closed shop for many children from poorer backgrounds and the number of home-grown players coming through will remain at a trickle. Therefore, while it is great to see a resurgence in Britain’s fortunes in the Fed Cup, the problems that have afflicted British tennis in recent decades sadly remain.

PHOTO/Marianne Bevis