The Evening Standard

Roger Draper does not give the impression of being the beleaguered chief executive of British tennis. We are sitting on the terrace of the National Tennis Centre at Roehampton discussing the state of the sport in this country in the wake of the Davis Cup humiliation.

A record five defeats in a row – the latest to a Lithuania side containing the country’s only three players with world rankings – has left Britain facing a relegation play-off against Turkey in July. A loss there would condemn the country to the bottom tier of the Davis Cup. I ask him, would this lead to his resignation as the head of the Lawn Tennis Association?

“I’m not even thinking about that – absolutely not,” he insists. “There is no question of resigning. My contract runs to 2013, we are four years into a 10-year transformation process and there are so many aspects of the sport going really well.

“Four or five weeks before the Lithuanian loss we had four finalists in the Australian Open. We nearly had the first British man to win a Grand Slam for a long time, Laura Robson was in her third Grand Slam junior final and Peter Norfolk was winning another Grand Slam in wheelchair tennis.”

In Melbourne, Lucy Shuker was also runner-up in the women’s wheelchair doubles although, of course, it was Andy Murray’s run to the men’s final which gave British tennis new optimism . . . until that Davis Cup embarrassment.

There is something of the zealous convert in Draper. In 2002 he quit as the LTA’s director of development claiming the governing body could not change. He reversed that opinion four years later when he left Sport England where he had been chief executive to take on the lead role in tennis.

Despite the Lithuanian disaster, amazingly Draper argues that tennis is a role model for other sports. He says: “Ten years ago tennis was being run like a village fete. We are now set up like a FTSE 250 company. We have made a lot of progress and other sports look to us as a model of change.”

The fact people do not recognise this, he says, is down to a failure to communicate the whole story of the game here.

“More than half a million people play tennis every week,” adds Draper. “More than 250,000 were coached last year. We have 23,000 tennis courts in this country.

“There is a tennis court within a walk, bike ride or bus ride of most people. Over the next five years we are investing £50million in facilities.

“We are one of the few sports that is growing and have twice as many participants as rugby league.”

Draper is also immensely proud of how well tennis sells itself.

“We are the fourth biggest commercial sport in the country, valued at £1.3billion. People come up to me and say, ‘Wow Roger, the commercial team pulled off probably the biggest success story last year.'”

However, the cheers of the number crunchers cannot drown out the calls from those within the game calling for Draper’s head.

Critics include former Davis Cup captain David Lloyd, Murray’s one-time coach Mark Petchey and Wimbledon champion-turned-pundit Pat Cash but Draper dismisses hostile opposition to him as “coming with the position”.

“Any leader in business or sport is there to be attacked,” he adds. The Lithuania defeat saw John Lloyd lose his captain’s job although Draper publicly absolved him from blame. So did he go voluntarily or was he pushed? Draper will only say, “he resigned”. When I persist, Draper repeats those two words but there is a hint in the way he utters them that there might have been more to the departure.

Just then, the new captain Leon Smith walks by and Draper invites him to join us. Smith has never played Davis Cup, never coached on the professional circuit but did tutor Murray as a youngster. So was Smith promoted from his role as head of player development for men’s tennis because he coached Murray?

“Absolutely not,” insists Draper. “It helps that Leon has an excellent relationship with Andy but Leon has 16 years’ experience as a coach. He knows British players better than anyone else. It is absolute nonsense to suggest it was just because of Andy Murray.”

The Scot did talk to the LTA’s player director Steve Martens and head coach Paul Annacone before Smith was given the job.

“That conversation was between Steve, Paul and Andy. I don’t know what was said, that was their call. This isn’t a personality contest, it is about appointing the right person.”

But, for the links between Smith and Murray, Draper cannot give any guarantee that the 22-year-old will line up against Turkey in Eastbourne, having missed the match in Lithuania.

“The most important thing for him is winning Grand Slams,” he says. “Andy will have a bigger impact on British tennis by winning Wimbledon and other majors than playing Davis Cup. We have agreed he will decide on a tie-by-tie basis. At the end of the day it is Andy’s call.”

The problem for British men’s tennis is that while Murray is No5 in the world his compatriots are languishing far behind – Alex Bogdanovic is next at 156 followed by James Ward at 253.

The women’s game is in much better health. Elena Baltacha is enjoying the best period of her career and is up to No59 in the world, Katie O’Brien is 110th and one ahead of Anne Keothavong, who was in the top 50 last year before suffering a serious injury.

Draper’s explanation is that it is easier to make progress in women’s tennis than the men’s game.

“If you take our two junior Grand Slam winners, Laura Robson and Heather Watson who are 16 and 18, they can move through to become top-100 players much quicker than the boys.

“The average age in the top 100 for the men has gone from 24 to 26. There are very few teenagers who are breaking through to the top 100 or 200. It is a longer transition on the boy’s side.”

At this point Smith explains: “In men’s tennis we had a lot of dropouts three or four years ago. The reason was it was difficult financially for the male players in this country who were not selected at a young age to continue playing. A lot of them went into coaching.”

The Lithuania defeat has led to yet another review being conducted by Martens and the LTA are planning new incentives for men. This will, says Smith, increase prize money on the domestic competitive circuit.

“Many of the players in France, Germany or Spain can play a national circuit with £1,000 a week prize money or sometimes a lot more. That way they can keep playing into their 30s. The other element is club tennis. We have a national league where we are going to put in money.”

But can cash solve the cultural problem of British club tennis: catering to the middle aged, middle-class members, so young boys who want to play have to vacate the court when the older members come on?

Draper admits: “We have a long way to go to change the whole club structure but we have almost 1,000 clubs across the country, who are doing a fantastic job. They are dispelling the myth that commercial clubs just want rich, white middle-class people.”

That perception is not helped by the fact the LTA have an annual budget of £55m with around half of that funded by profits from Wimbledon. Given Britain’s lack of success at the top level, the vast amounts spent by the LTA are often questioned.

However, Draper argues: “Other sports bring in more money than we do. Rugby union’s income is more than £100m. We use our money to grow the sport. This year it went to putting 100,000 racquets and 200,000 balls into primary schools.”

would it not be much simpler, as Martina Navratilova suggested, for British tennis just to copy the French model. “They have so many players in the top 100 and more courts than in the United States,” she told me recently. “You don’t have to reinvent the wheel.”

Draper concedes Britain is still behind the French in terms of courts but says: “It is like comparing apples and pears. The French Tennis Federation hardly invests a penny in facilities because those are funded by local government. That allows the federation to invest in coaches, club managers and people. In this country, the Lottery has declined and local government has stopped investing in sport.”

Gesturing round the NTC, he adds: “In France, this would have been government funded but we funded all this ourselves – £40m in total.”

Draper, who learned tennis on park courts and went on to captain Surrey, plans to reduce the cost of playing tennis. But for all the systems in place and the beguiling way he talks about change, surely the major stumbling block is what Navratilova identifies as lack of desire among British players.

“Kids brought up in England have it too easy.” The contrast with eastern Europe or Asia, she explained, could not be sharper. “You have to take the train or take the public transport or you walk or ride a bicycle, you don’t have a car like you do here.”

Draper refuses to accept this argument. “I don’t think there is a lack of hunger. Tim Henman got a lot of grief about this but he was tough as nails.”

For Draper the eastern Europe success comes because the kids go abroad at the right time.

“Historically in this country success has come largely because of the commitment of the parents,” he says. “Andy owes a lot to Judy, Greg to his father. All we can do is try and remove the barriers that were in place before. We have been a little late to the table with tennis, things are now being put in place but it will take time.”

Draper would love to do what cycling has done. “Back in 1998 cycling was bankrupt, 23rd in the world and had 8,000 members. But, unlike cycling, I can’t pick Rebecca Romero out of the rowing team and make her a Wimbledon champion.”

Draper admits his council has asked him questions about the state of men’s tennis but he says that people must look at the bigger picture. “Twelve years ago I told my wife that things would calm down but something always comes along.”

He is sure British tennis can come through and emerge stronger saying, “We need to start having good dreams again.”

But a defeat against Turkey could prove to be a nightmare too far.


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