LTA National Academy head coach quits with search for replacement in difficulty

LTA - John Taylor
LTA - John Taylor

The head coach of the Lawn Tennis Association's National Academy at Loughborough has quit and a recruitment drive to attract suitable replacements has run into difficulties.

The two national academies in Loughborough and Stirling were announced with great fanfare in 2018 by the LTA’s then performance director Simon Timson. Despite similar schemes having been tried and abandoned in the past, Timson promised that they would make the LTA the envy of the tennis world.

But in May, the LTA acknowledged what had long been obvious – that the Stirling Academy was not fit for purpose – by announcing its imminent closure. This week they have confirmed that Loughborough boss Nick Cavaday will leave his post at the end of April.

Now Timson’s successor Michael Bourne wants to expand the maximum number of students training at Loughborough to 24 and change the structure so that there is no direct replacement for Cavaday. It is the latest rethink in a story of chopping and changing that dates back decades.

In the short term, Morgan Phillips has been appointed interim head of boys’ tennis, while the LTA are recruiting a head of girls’ tennis – a position which they are reportedly struggling to fill – and a non-coaching academy director with pastoral responsibilities.

The changes come after a four-year term that has done little to change the global perception, shared by most nations other than Britain, of centralised training models as expensive white elephants.

Loughborough is understood to cost somewhere in the region of half-a-million pounds a year to run, yet many observers fail to understand why these coaches cannot work out of the Lawn Tennis Association’s headquarters at the National Tennis Centre in south-west London.

The LTA is expected to sign a new five-year deal with Loughborough, but one critic described the situation as “like when a football club signs an expensive player, and they want to keep playing him, even though he’s not performing, because of the size of their investment”.

While Stirling did little to move the needle, Loughborough has helped develop players such as 17-year-old Ranah Akua Stoiber – who reached the semi-finals of the recent Australian Open junior event – and 15-year-old Mingge Xu, who has been offered a place on the next stage of the ladder as a member of the LTA’s “pro scholarship programme”.

But there is no great mystery here. These are a couple of outstanding junior talents who worked closely with a solid coach in Cavaday, and made decent progress – as they probably would have at the NTC or any other sizeable training base.

Whereas what Timson promised – before he left to become performance director at Manchester City football club – was a tennis distillation of the “marginal gains” philosophy he had worked with at UK Sport. He spoke about superior sports science and a “head, heart, legs, weapons” blueprint for identifying the missing pieces in each player’s personal profile.

Five years after those ambitious words, there is little sign that the LTA has managed to reinvent the wheel.

With regard to the question of location, the LTA argue that it wouldn't be possible to move the Loughborough project lock, stock and barrel to the NTC.

"The Roehampton site doesn’t have the court capacity to accommodate national academy players on top of the elite, wheelchair, PSP and juniors who currently use the courts on a daily basis," said a spokesman. "There is also the education provision to take into consideration for the players at the academy, and any move to London would likely see significantly increased education and staffing costs.”