Special British tennis report: Why finding the next Emma Raducanu is going to be as hard as ever

Raducanu with the US Open trophy and playing tennis as a young girl - British Tennis Special: Why It's So Hard to Find the Next Emma Raducanu
Emma Raducanu's New York miracle is a defining moment for tennis in the UK. At least it should - as long as the Lawn Tennis Association manages to capitalize on its exceptional marketability.
Raducanu's victory crowned the pleasing 18 months. The national participation numbers have already risen by eight percent thanks to the forced inaction that sent many people to their local courts and will surely rise again in the coming weeks and months.
Andy Murray presented the position properly on Monday evening. “What [Raducanu] did in New York was very special,” he said. "[It's] a huge boost to British tennis and hopefully gives the governing bodies a chance to capitalize on it and involve more and more children in the sport. It's great what she has done and now a huge opportunity for the UK Tennis."
And yet Murray will be wary of further wastage. His own great accomplishments over the past decade have left no lasting legacy thanks to the LTA's miserable mismanagement. Now that a second golden chance has fallen from the sky, Roehampton suits can't afford to make the same mistake again.
A system in constant flux
Passengers on a particular Thameslink train running from Blackfriars to Kent this summer may have been surprised when the driver made an inquiry over the intercom. "If anyone sees a little Wimbledon there is a girl called Emma Raducanu who is a great player from Bromley. If you can tell me what the score is, that would be great."
Coincidentally, the driver in question was the same person Raducanu originally discovered when he was eight at the Parklangley Club in Beckenham. He was part of a national network of TPCs - Talent Performance Coordinators - appointed by the then General Manager of the Lawn Tennis Association, Roger Draper. It is a role that no longer exists in this form.
The story is reminiscent of the regular upheavals that shaped British tennis in the 21st century. The development of top players is not only extremely tough but also painfully slow, which is why the LTA staggered from one approach to the next in search of a quick fix.
But since Raducanu appeals to countless children with its charm and reliability, it is worth asking whether the current system is well positioned to take advantage of the sport.
"When you're the LTA now, it's easy to push participation," said Calvin Betton, a veteran coach from Leeds. “You can concentrate on road shows, set up inflatable tennis courts, say: 'Yes, it was great - we have 200 kids there.' The next step is more difficult.
“Of course it is good if more children run around in the parking lots. But how many join a club or play tournaments? a steady stream of solid tour players rather than a light sprinkling compounded by occasional generational phenomena. "
Raducanu attended her former school, Bickley Primary School in Bromley, Kent as a youth ambassador for LTA - GETTY IMAGES
How Raducanu was discovered
No Grand Slam nation has found a surefire way to succeed, although the Czechs and Italians offer a taste of what is achievable. In the case of the UK, Raducanu's New York Miracle posthumously confirmed Talent ID - a controversial development path that Draper established shortly after his appointment in 2006.
Clipboard coaches tested children as young as eight for various physical and technical metrics before referring the highest-scoring children to a colored ball competitive system. They started with red, squishy things the size of a little grapefruit and then worked their way through orange and green before reaching the standard yellow.
Talent ID was brave and innovative. Other governing bodies around the world sent scouts to see what the LTA was doing. At the same time, however, it caused massive discomfort among British offspring. Junior tennis is always marked by a good deal of jealousy and dissatisfaction, such are the often unrealistic expectations that tennis parents have of their children, but now there was the additional sin of novelty.
Making predictions by the age of eight is a demanding business. A common objection was that the chosen ones - who received what is known as matrix funding because of their ranking and results - were often natural athletes who lacked competition fire and who therefore constantly lost junior matches to more dogged and committed characters.
But Talent ID could have been created for Raducanu. She was tremendously good in every aspect. Mark Hayden, who now works as the LTA's National Pathway Coach for the Southeast, recalls that she did a fan exercise that required the child to pick up balls in a pattern around them as quickly as possible.
"Her balance, her change of direction, her pace - it was on a different level," said Hayden. “Let's say the other kids did it in 18 seconds. She would take 16 and a half. "
A coach who worked at the Bromley Tennis Center recalls Raducanu chewing up opponents with the green ball when he was eight or nine years old. “The green ball is a bit strange because after orange mini tennis you climb half a field onto a large court. It plays very dead, like an ordinary ball with the filling knocked out, and that can favor people who play terrible, hackneyed tennis. Not in Emma's case, however. It was outstanding because it covered the large space so well that most young children couldn't. I watched her at the US Open and thought, 'She's such a good front runner,' and then I realized she's used to that. She killed people from an early age. "
The best hour of Talent ID - and its sudden end
Raducanu's development went so smoothly that it could serve as a model for future development programs. She was athletic and ambitious. She had sensible, questioning, intelligent parents. She lived in the middle of a tennis-rich suburb where her up-and-coming high school (Newstead Wood) was based on one of the best local talent forges in the country at the Bromley Tennis Center. Above all, she had an exceptionally calm temper.
"When she was seven, Emma won the Kent County Closed under nine," said Hayden. "The girls played tie-breaks with an orange ball and she won the final 7-0, 7-5. All she did was punch a little fist before gently shaking hands with the net. You can literally see that never." . It's the biggest tennis day of the year for these kids, and they had just beaten an older girl in a tight finish. Anyone else would have jumped and screamed and waved their arms. It was just normal for Emma. "
Would Raducanu have made it without Talent ID? Almost certainly, because it is the "generational phenomenon" Betton spoke of earlier. But with so many other interests in her young life - ballet and motocross among them - it can't have hurt that she was watched over by a representative from the national association and probably received a small amount of financial support for her coaching bills early on in Age.
Raducanu at her home club in Bromley - JAMIE LORRIMAN
These coaching costs are the biggest problem for aspiring tennis professionals and one reason why so many talented young athletes are opting for cheaper team sports - especially soccer - instead. Yes, the Raducanu family lived in a pleasant and leafy area of ​​south east London, but they did not have the independent resources to fund the full-time coaching and occasional overseas travel that a junior tennis career requires.
The wilderness years of the LTA
Talent ID was closed in 2016. "The system was very judgmental at a young age," said Peter Keane, the then LTA performance director. "I think there is full consensus that it didn't work and did more harm than good."
This was part of an extraordinary slash and burn policy pursued by Draper's successor Michael Downey. He hired the late Bob Brett, a brilliant tracksuit trainer with no managerial experience, to effectively run the performance department. The mindset at the time was that anyone who wasn't in the top 100 in the world was, by definition, a failure.
Ironically, Downey's brutal cuts in the performance department - for which then-LTA chairman David Gregson must also be held accountable - came just as Murray had the best season of his career and was number one in the world. Many believe they blocked the momentum within the British game at the worst possible time.
The LTA has access to the Wimbledon surplus, which is around £ 40-50 million annually. Yet they didn't get around to proposing a replacement system for two years until Simon Timson - another performance director - unveiled his vision of two glorious and ambitious National Academies based in Loughborough and Stirling in 2018.
There are now 19 children training in these two academies with the aim of providing a comprehensive service in terms of coaching, fitness and education (although the Stirling branch did not have a smooth start to life and recently under the Brazilian head coach Leo Azevedo Vocation to leave the family has issues).
Will they work? It is impossible to know. As the case of Raducanu shows, it can take decades to filter out results. What we can say is that the LTA's talent development program has never invested so much in so few. And that the rungs at the bottom of the ladder - the ones that precede seats at the National Academy at 13 or 14 - have been largely sawed off.
One of the people at the heart of Talent ID was Simon Jones, the former LTA head of coach development who now holds the same title at Chelsea FC. “If I could go back in time, I would change the name,” he says now, “because the system was about so much more than just finding out who the LTA should support financially Introducing mini-tennis across the country . It was much maligned and too radical for a lot of people. But the key point is that we have identified 400 children that we can support. People can argue about whether they were always the right kids, but before Talent ID, we didn't endorse any.
“There are a lot of critical questions about the selection process,” Jones continued, “but the only thing you shouldn't do is stop making selections at all - and that's happened on the lower steps of the way. People say that boy Kids are supposed to just play and have fun until they realize they want to become professionals, but the reality - which many find inedible - is that those who make it big often take their sport incredibly seriously at a very young age I See it here at Chelsea with the likes of Mason Mount, Reece James, Tammy Abraham and Callum Hudson-Odoi. It takes a lot of courage from the LTA board to really understand the concept of tennis development and to really invest in it. "
A new era is imminent
The mechanics of talent development may seem like an esoteric debate - and indeed, many academic papers have been written on the subject, along with populist treatments like Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers. In tennis, however, they will become more and more relevant in the coming months.
LTA Leader Ian Yates is leaving the company in the new year. The recruitment of his replacement is underway, and it will be interesting to see if Scott Lloyd - the organization's newest executive director - continues the current policy of including outsiders from other sports. Timson came from bobsleigh and cricket, Yates and Keane from cycling and the new performance director Michael Bourne from rifle shooting.
Telegraph Sport has spoken to several tennis lifters who have applied, so there is no shortage of candidates. This could be the time to pick an insider. As one applicant put it: “Tennis has always been my sport. Obsessed with it, I'm assuming that I would get a job at Manchester City by at least 65 four years later, as everyone knew from day one. All of this contributes to the instability of the system. "
Turbulence has been the standard condition at Roehampton for as long as anyone can remember. Britain's tennis culture is much smaller than, say, France or Spain, and it is difficult to compete with these tennis superpowers. But Raducanu's story shows the danger of abandoning programs if they are still established. Jones has a nice way of putting that. "We'll keep pulling the tree up to see if it grows."
Yes, the narrowness of the National Academy program remains an issue - with 18 balls in the lottery requiring a far higher hit rate than 400. But Loughborough head coach Nick Cavaday is a seasoned operator who worked with Raducanu himself in Bromley during her early teens. It would be hypocritical, in light of Talent ID history, to request the program be terminated before it could prove itself.
At the same time, however, Yates' successor must look at the years leading up to adolescence - when the academies usually take the lead - and listen to what Jones says. In this difficult time between eight and 13 years, when the families can fall back on their own financial reserves or ad hoc sponsorship, there is hardly any support for children. Who knows how many potential future champions may slip away from us.
In this article:
Emma Raducan
British tennis player
Roger Draper
Sports administrator

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