England will never produce a true world tennis star until the sport loses its white, middle-class profile
Even now, following his tennis exploits at the US Open, there is only grudging respect for Andy Murray on the part of many. Imagine if Tim Henman had reached the final of the US Open – the media would have been going bonkers.
If we applied the same criteria to our football stars as we use for our tennis players, hardly anyone would pass muster: Wayne Rooney would be condemned as an oik, not fit to represent our nation.
The reason, of course, is class. Tennis, ever since its growing popularity in the 19th century with the rise of tennis clubs, has been an irredeemably middle-class sport. Tennis clubs still carry that aura. Wimbledon is a celebration of a certain kind of Englishness: strawberries and cream, green lawns, white-only dress, a manicured and tame world of polite gentility, in short the white home counties middle class at play.
Henman was their perfect representative, the embodiment of the Wimbledon culture and the class from which it is drawn.
Unsurprisingly, when it comes to producing successful players, this culture has been a miserable failure. It is too narrowly drawn, too selective and too restrictive about whom is acceptable and what are seen as the required social, cultural and behavioural characteristics.
The culture has never been primarily about winning, or finding winners, but first and foremost about having the right social and cultural attributes. The LTA has spent a large amount of its Wimbledon income on trying to produce some homegrown stars to precious little effect.
No wonder. It is mining a seam that is not only far too narrow, but has for the most part the wrong mentality. If British tennis is to be a serious international contender – rather than an annual tournament called Wimbledon – there has to be a cultural revolution in terms of who plays it, who watches it, and who organises it.
Enter Murray. He is patently not part of the English home counties, preciously middle-class, All-England Club/LTA mentality. He is Scottish. He feels more at home at Flushing Meadows and New York than Wimbledon and SW19. He is edgy and comes with attitude. He is a Dunblane, not Surrey, kid. All these attributes help to explain why he has made it while folks like Henman didn’t.
As Murray scales the heights of world tennis, he will surely inspire a new generation of British tennis players just like, in their time, Bjorn Borg and Boris Becker did in Sweden and Germany respectively. And the very fact that he is not a chip off the old block of the English tennis establishment means that he is likely to inspire a much wider cross-section of kids to play tennis. In other words, Murray’s success may begin to break the cultural mould of tennis.
And all that LTA money? Let me make a suggestion. Instead of spending large amounts of money on a vast centre in Roehampton (Surrey, of course), why doesn’t the LTA invest some of its fortune in Brixton – and hire as consultant the greatest (and most interesting) tennis coach of our time, Richard Williams, the father of Venus and Serena: a self-taught coach who, without money and in defiance of convention, produced the two greatest black women players in history.
There are lots of kids with not too much to do in Brixton and its environs, who have huge talent and an overwhelming hunger to succeed, given the chance. But if the tennis world is so reluctant to accept Murray, imagine how difficult they would find it to embrace a cluster of rising black tennis stars?
To this day, the Wimbledon crowd has never managed to get behind one of the Williams’ sisters. It is a nice dream; but I fear that is how it will remain.