The Evening Standard

On a flight back from an ATP champions event in China last week, Pat Cash was chatting with Goran Ivanisevic. There was plenty to talk about but one subject dominated the conversation and the two former Wimbledon champions spent the entire journey shaking their heads in bewilderment over the Lawn Tennis Association’s handling of the game in Britain.

Cash said: “Goran told me, ‘They called me in. I said I would help, then not a word’. Same thing happened with me. Two years ago I met Roger Draper [the LTA chief executive] and his team. They said they wanted to use my experience. I never got a call again. It is downright rude. How Draper still keeps his job, I don’t know. It is one of the miracles of tennis.”

Cash and I were sitting at The Queen’s Club watching a Real tennis match, a qualifier for the British Open.

While Cash has never played Real tennis, he reflected on how Henry VIII started the game and I got the impression that he would love to do to the LTA what Henry did to the monasteries.

“The LTA have been wasting the money they get from Wimbledon [this year’s surplus was £29.2million] for so many years. It’s an absolute joke the LTA have not been held accountable,” said Cash.

It will not do to dismiss Cash as an ex-champion, or worse an Australian with an agenda. He is very much part of his adopted home city.

Queen’s is just a short bike ride from his home in Fulham and he is still enthralled by the British rock bands which first attracted him here.

“For me, growing up in Australia, the rock and roll bands Iron Maiden, White Snake, Judas Priest and Black Sabbath were mystical bands who lived in England. Now I can see them again, they are coming back on nostalgia tours.”

Indeed, the day we met he was excited about going to a Deep Purple concert. All of this means Cash has the added merit of being an outsider who sees things more sharply than many of the natives.

He said: “The crux of the problem is that kids are not picking up racquets. You have to be Middle England, middle-class to play tennis in this country. “It is absolutely a white middle-class sport.”

He contrasts his own upbringing in Melbourne with Jett, his 14-year-old son, in London. “When I was growing up I used to play 30 sets of competitive tennis every week.” he added.

“My son plays four sets a week and that is because he signed up for club match play. Even then, if kids are playing in a club and the adult members come, they are moved off the court.”

The Cash solution is simple: “If you had all the kids in England picking up a racquet and going down to the local park and playing on a decent court – with the courts, racquets and balls free – then there might be kids from council areas picking up tennis. The game might reach Britain’s inner cities.”

Anne Keothavong, Britain’s No1 female player, started playing on public courts on Hackney Downs and Highbury Fields. Cash said: “Surely that should be enough to say, why not open up all the parks?”

But putting on a mock upper-class British accent, he mimicked what an LTA official might say.

“No, don’t want to do that, that might produce too many players.”

Then tapping the table, he added: “Here we are: Queen’s, Wimbledon and the LTA national centre at Roehampton are all within a couple of miles of each other in south London. If they can’t get the park system right here, what hope is there for British tennis?”

Cash is convinced that there is only one road to success: “Get loads and loads of kids playing and you get a freak like Andy Murray, or a Wayne Rooney, superb athletes, they pick up a tennis racquet and you’ve got them.”

Mention of Murray does lighten the Cash mood, however. “Murray is one of the most complete players I have ever seen. I cannot find a weakness.”

Better than Rafa Nadal?

“He is a more complete player than Nadal. He volleys better, serves better, he has a better approach shot and the sliced backhand is better.

“Nadal has freakishly powerful heavy top-spun ground strokes and is an unbelievable competitor, taking the game to another level.”

And Roger Federer?

“Federer has got just about every shot but Murray has a better backhand than Federer and arguably he is as good everywhere else.”

But Cash dismisses the idea that Murray proves there is some gold in the muck of British tennis. “Champions will become champions in spite of the system. But Murray has been one of the lucky ones: a good athlete taught correctly,” he added.

We have now touched on Cash’s other great theme, that British tennis has been ruining players by teaching them the now discredited closed stance where a player is taught to hit a forehand facing sideways, not facing his opponent.

“The crazy thing is, until recently, they were teaching the closed stance here when it was discarded elsewhere 20 years ago. They are changing but it will take 10 years to catch up.”

Indeed, Cash believes that this was the reason that Tim Henman did not win Wimbledon. He said: “There is this misconception that Tim was too much of a gentlemen. Taxi drivers used to tell me he did not have the heart or the bottle.

“I don’t believe that. For him to perform so well at Wimbledon under all that pressure year in and year out shows how good he was.

“But his big weakness was his forehand. He was taught the closed stance. His forehand improved on the circuit but had he been taught the open stance we might have been talking of Tim Henman – Wimbledon champion.”

If Murray does not need to change his game technically to win Wimbledon, he does need more tactical nous.

“He is just a little repetitive,” Cash added. “He does not do enough with the ball. So when he gets a short ball he places it back instead of really thumping it.”

This, according to Cash, explains Murray’s unexpected defeat by American big-hitter Andy Roddick in the Wimbledon semi-finals last summer.

“Murray’s coach clearly advised, ‘Just keep the rally going and Roddick will miss’. But Roddick didn’t. He fooled us all, including me.

“But even here,” said Cash consolingly, “Murray is improving. Next year he will have a very good year. Maybe he will win the ATP World Final.”

That starts next week at the O2, followed by Cash himself playing in the AEGON Masters at the Royal Albert Hall. The seniors will not be short on nostalgia, with Pat Rafter playing Ivanisevic for the first time since the Croat beat him in the 2001 Wimbledon final, but there will be no Andre Agassi.

Cash is well aware that this will not stop the talk caused by Agassi’s confession of having lied about taking crystal meth during his playing career.

Cash, himself, took drugs but “never during my playing career”. He did so after retirement when he hit the nightclub circuit and took “whatever was around, cocaine, ecstasy”.

Agassi’s confession has puzzled Cash. “If it’s recreational drugs, it is not going to help his tennis and players don’t really care. For performance enhancing drugs, players would want to hang, draw and quarter him. So many rumours were going round while he was on the tour.”

Rumours while he was playing?

“Yeah, look it is bizarre, I don’t want to go into it too much.”

In concluding the subject, Cash said: “All I can say is, I believe there is more to this story than meets the eye.

“And whether we ever find out or not, I don’t know. The strangest thing is not that he did recreational drugs, not that he got let off but that he is actually talking about it. And that is starting rumours as well. He is a strange guy, a very weird guy.” Cash’s reticence over Agassi’s drug taking is only matched by his refusal to say how much money he will make from the AEGON Masters.

“My mum always said never talk about money,” he added, starkly.

All he will say is it is nowhere near the $200,000 dollars a week that “guys like Pete Sampras and John McEnroe can make”. But it is more than Cash earns from commentating and is also more interesting.

The problem is Cash finds the modern game boring and can only tolerate commentating in small doses.

“There is so little variety. You can take the head of one guy and put it on the body of a woman and crank up the speed and that is the men’s game.

“Men and women play the same game except the men are bigger and stronger. You see a ball going backwards and forwards. If you did not know who was wearing a dress and who wasn’t, you wouldn’t be sure if it was men’s or women’s tennis.”

Nevertheless, with tennis now a power game, the gap between men and women is so much bigger that he feels “the 500th to 700th-ranked men would beat the No1 woman”.

Cash clearly feels nostalgic about the tennis of his era. Devoted as he is to spiritual books and being a believer in an after-life, he is convinced that heaven has a tennis court for serve and volleyers like him.


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