In his seven years as the boss of the Lawn Tennis Association, how much did Roger Draper really achieve? The debate will continue, but increasingly it looks as if Draper’s major long-term contribution might have been fathering the Next Big Thing in British tennis.
Jack Draper is our most prodigious 18-year-old talent since Andy Murray. Having finally stopped growing this spring, he now stands 6ft 3in, and builds his game around a viciously swerving leftie serve. His biggest asset, though, is the bloody-minded mentality that he was forced to develop in his early years. Until his father stepped down from the job in 2013, Jack wore a target on his back.
“There was quite a lot of jealousy when I was younger,” said Draper, the youngest man to have earned a place at next week’s Schroders Battle of the Brits. “I would often go to junior tournaments and have 15 boys on the balcony I had never seen before willing me on to lose, making noises before I serve, all that sort of stuff. That’s just kids’ stuff, though, isn’t it?
“I realised as I got older, that’s just the way it is. There’s always going to be people thinking that I am getting better treatment or whatever. But at the end of the day I am 280 in the world at the age of 18, and my dad has not done that for me. I am the one who has put all my efforts and hard work and sacrifices into being a good tennis player.”
It’s not just about Roger. Although Jack’s parents are now divorced, his whole family is virtually a tennis supergroup, not far behind Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf on the pedigree stakes.
Mother Nicky was herself the best junior in the country, winning national titles with monotonous regularity, while her brother – and Jack’s uncle – Jon Entract also played to a high level. Older brother Ben is on a tennis scholarship at the University of California.
“I remember my parents used to always tell me off when I was younger,” Jack recalled, “because I was quite badly behaved. I would cry on court, smashing rackets and being a d*******, and they would tell me I was a disgrace. And then I would go down to Dad’s match on Sunday and he would be smashing his rackets. Tennis is very easy to talk about but when you’re actually playing, it’s so frustrating.”
As this story suggests, Jack has always had something extra: a combination of intense competitiveness and instinctive tennis nous that puts old-stagers in mind of the young Murray. Both these men are playing in the Schroders Battle of the Brits from Tuesday, although they have been drawn in different groups, and thus can only meet if they both make the semi-finals.
“There’s a group chat with a lot of banter on it,” said Draper. “I get a lot of it as I am the young one, people gang up on me. I hit with Andy last week and he started saying I am the favourite for the tournament because I have never lost at the National Tennis Centre. It’s true: I have played a couple of tournaments at Roehampton and won them both. Andy knows all that stuff because he is a results fanatic, a tennis nut, he knows everything.”
The first of those Futures titles came in 2018, the breakthrough season that saw a 16-year-old Draper go from being a middling junior to earning a top-500 ranking on the adult tour, while reaching the Wimbledon boys’ final along the way.
The catalyst for his extraordinary switch in fortunes, he says now, was an unflattering remark from Alan Jones, the veteran coach best known for helping Jo Durie reach No 5 in the world, whose son Ryan now works with Draper.
“At that stage in late 2017 and early 2018 Ryan was coaching me and George Loffhagen [a talented Londoner who is Draper’s senior by eight months],” Jack recalled. “George was this amazing player and really physical for that age, one of the best under-18 juniors. He would make me look silly in practice, run rings around me, and it wasn’t very nice at all.
“We were in Australia [for the junior Australian Open] at the start of 2018 and I remember seeing an online interview with Alan. He obviously didn’t mean it at all but he said one of our top juniors and favourite to win is out there in Australia with hitting partner Jack Draper.
“I just remember I had never been more motivated in my life. It was weird how it all panned out. All of a sudden I went from around 100 in the junior rankings, losing first round at the top junior level, to making the final of Wimbledon. It just showed me how much difference my attitude made. I started watching more tennis on YouTube, listening to my coaches and stretching. I never thought that would be enjoyable but when I started having good results it was very satisfying.
“George had a bit of a wobble but I think he is gonna come good; he is just a scary athlete, I am still really good friends with him, because we travelled for two years together. Him and Anton [Matusevich, another member of a strong 2001 vintage], if they put their minds to it they are gonna be catching up to me really quickly.”
It could have all been so different for Draper if he had decided to stick with Chelsea FC, where he was part of the Academy for 18 months as an 11 and 12-year-old. Did he make the right decision, by jacking football in for tennis? His obvious quality and eye-catching results would suggest that he did. Even if, at the moment, he admits that it doesn’t always feel that way.
“I probably didn’t know what I was in for if I am honest. Tennis is a great sport, you get to travel the world and from the outside it all looks amazing. But this stage of my career has been a grind. I’ve spent the last three years studying, travelling to not so many nice places, and experiencing all different types of stresses.
“At a younger age I was thinking about winning Wimbledon and all the main tournaments and getting with loads of girls and whatever, but that’s not the way it is at all. It’s just getting to work and knowing that I have got to put myself out there if I want to be really good.
“It’s the same in football. The reality of high-level sport is that it’s not easy and it’s not fun at the time. But if you make it, maybe it gets a little bit easier.”