At this time of year the sports reporters on our newspapers turn their small minds to tennis. For most of the rest of the year they write about association football, a subject about which, to be fair to them, they seem to know something. Indeed, one gets the impression that they actually enjoy football. And they particularly enjoy, as I believe many football fans do, demanding the sacking of managers and players when a match is lost. The long view is not one which sports reporters or football fans are capable of taking. The loss of a match is a disaster which must lead to the crucifixion of players and managers immediately.
In early July (it used to be late June and early July but Wimbledon started a week later than usual this year) the poor sports reporters are required to write about tennis. That is not a sport which they enjoy. They don’t understand it at all. But they do their best. They bring their aggressive approach to football to tennis. Their theme, they are all united on this, is that British tennis is doomed. OK, there may be a Murray (though he will probably be under attack tomorrow for having lost his quarter final match) and a Konta (not really British anyway they say), but why are all the players at the All England Club not British?
Anyone reading the efforts of British sports journalists could be forgiven for assuming that we are unique in the world in only having a handful of top tennis players. But that is nonsense. America, a much larger country than Britain, has today managed to get a male player into the semi-finals of a grand slam for the first time for many years. Britain achieves that in almost every grand slam. Australian players, as usual, were all knocked out in the early stages of the tournament. The French, who claim to have invented tennis, regularly disappear in pretty well every grand slam. But none of that prevents the journalists from endlessly proclaiming that Britain is the only country which has no future champions.
In Tim Henman’s day (he was much more successful than any journalist would ever be prepared to admit) we were constantly regaled with the “fact” that there was no one to follow him. And yet, there was Andy Murray in the background. Today, we are assured that Andy Murray will be the last great British male tennis player. No one is there to follow him. It is not convenient to notice players like Aidan McHugh. He is the boy who has today knocked out the number six seed in the second round of the boys’ singles at Wimbledon (he took the first set 6-0). No, the story is that there are no good junior tennis players in Britain. The facts must not be allowed to interfere with that story.
I suspect that the sports reporters, who only really like football, just don’t understand tennis. They only write about it for a fortnight every year and it seems appalling to them that not every successful player at Wimbledon is British (they don’t seem to mind that most footballers in British clubs are actually foreign). They approach tennis in the way they approach football: sack everyone in sight when we don’t win.
Let me try to explain tennis to those journalists. First, it is entirely different from football. A boy who shows promise as a footballer can be recruited by a rich club and given training. He will not have to leave home. He will be paid lavishly. If he turns out to be good, he will be offered a lucrative contract by his club. At no stage will he have to fend for himself.
What about the boy who is good at tennis? Maybe he will be offered training by the LTA. But he faces an appalling slog. He must play in tennis tournaments (watched by about five people) up and down the country every weekend. His parents will have to fork out for the bed and breakfast and the travel. If he does well he will graduate to tournaments abroad, where the prize money may be as much as £100 but the expenses will be a great deal more. That will go on for years until, if all goes well, his ranking becomes high enough for him to be allowed to enter the qualifying stage of an ATP tournament. He may or may not qualify. If he does, he must pray that he is not knocked out in the first round (which will mean a return to the £100 tournaments).
It seems to me to be extraordinary that we produce so many good tennis players when their path to success is so tortuous. And it must be rather galling for those excellent players to have to read articles by football writers complaining that no British youngster plays tennis well.
Aidan McHugh. A future tennis star ignored by all sports journalists