Special report: Finding the next Emma Raducanu as hard as ever for British tennis

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Raducanu with the US Open trophy and playing tennis as a young girl - 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 - Special British tennis report: Why finding the next Emma Raducanu is going to be as hard as ever

Emma Raducanu's New York miracle represents a transformational moment for tennis in Britain. Or, at least, it should do - as long as the Lawn Tennis Association manage to harness her extraordinary marketability.

Raducanu's victory put the cherry on top of what has been an encouraging 18 months. National participation figures have already climbed by eight per cent, thanks to the forced inactivity that sent many people down to their local courts, and will surely rise again in the coming weeks and months.

Andy Murray set out the position neatly on Monday night. "What [Raducanu] did in New York was very special," he said. "[It is] a huge boost for British tennis and gives hopefully the governing bodies an opportunity to capitalise on that and get more and more kids involved in the sport. It's great what she did and a huge opportunity for British tennis now."

And yet, Murray will be wary of further wastefulness. His own magnificent achievements throughout the last decade failed to leave any lasting legacy, thanks to abject mismanagement from the LTA. Now that a second golden chance has fallen from the heavens, the suits at Roehampton cannot afford to make the same mistake again.

A system in constant flux

Passengers on a certain Thameslink train running from Blackfriars to Kent this summer might have been surprised to hear the driver make a request over the intercom. “If anyone is watching a bit of 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’d be great.”

As it happened, the driver in question was the same person who had originally spotted Raducanu as an eight-year-old at the Parklangley Club in Beckenham. He had been part of a national network of TPCs – talent performance co-ordinators – who were put in place by the then Lawn Tennis Association chief executive Roger Draper. It is a role that no longer exists in the same form.

The story is a reminder of the regular upheavals that have characterised British tennis in the 21st Century. Developing top players is not only extremely hard but also painfully slow, which is why the LTA have lurched from one approach to the next in search of a quick fix.

But as Raducanu brings unprecedented exposure to the sport, reaching out to countless children with her charm and relatability, it's worth asking whether the present system is well placed to take advantage.

“If you are the LTA now, the easy thing is to push participation,” said Calvin Betton, an experienced coach based in Leeds. “You can focus on roadshows, set up inflatable tennis courts, say: ‘Yeah, it was great - we got 200 kids there.’ The harder thing is the next stage.

"Of course, it’s good to get more children running around on park courts. But how many join a club or play tournaments? You want to boost the domestic competitive structure and so raise the baseline of quality, because the goal is to be producing a steady stream of solid tour players, rather than a light sprinkling boosted by the occasional generational phenomenon.”

Raducanu visited her former school, Bickley Primary School in Bromley, Kent as a youth ambassador for the LTA - GETTY IMAGES
Raducanu visited her former school, Bickley Primary School in Bromley, Kent as a youth ambassador for the LTA - GETTY IMAGES

How Raducanu was discovered

No grand-slam nation has come up with a surefire method for success, although the Czech women and Italian men offer a glimpse of what can be achieved. In Britain's case, meanwhile, Raducanu's New York miracle has provided posthumous vindication for “Talent ID” - a controversial development pathway established by Draper soon after his appointment in 2006.

Clipboard-wielding coaches tested children as young as eight on various physical and technical metrics, before forwarding the highest-scoring kids into a system of competition based around coloured balls. They started out on red squishy things the size of a small grapefruit, and then worked their way through orange and green before reaching the standard yellow.

Talent ID was bold and innovative. Other governing bodies around the world sent scouts over to see what the LTA were doing. At the same time, though, it created massive ill-feeling within the British junior game. Junior tennis is always characterised by a fair amount of jealousy and dissatisfaction, such are the often unrealistic expectations that tennis parents have of their children, but this was now compounded by the extra sin of novelty.

Making predictions at the age of eight is a challenging business. One common objection was that the chosen ones - who received so-called matrix funding based on their ranking and results - were often natural athletes who lacked competitive fire, and thus consistently lost junior matches to more dogged and driven characters.

But Talent ID could have been made for Raducanu. She was monstrously good at every aspect of it. Mark Hayden, who now works as the LTA's National Pathway Coach for the South East, remembers her performing a fan drill, which requires the child to pick up balls laid out in a pattern around her as quickly as possible.

“Her balance, her change of direction, her foot-speed - it was on a different level,” said Hayden. “Let’s say that the other kids were doing it in 18 seconds. She would take 16 and a half.”

One coach who worked at Bromley Tennis Centre remembers Raducanu chewing opponents up with the green ball at the age of eight or nine. “The green ball is a bit weird because you move up to a full-sized court after orange mini-tennis on a half-court. It plays very dead, like an ordinary ball that has had the stuffing knocked out of it, and that can favour people who play horrible, hacky tennis. Not in Emma's case, though. She was outstanding because she covered the big court so well, which most of the young kids couldn’t do. I was watching her at the US Open thinking, ‘She is such a good front-runner,’ and then I realised that that is what she is used to doing. She has been slaying people from an early age.”

Talent ID's finest hour - and its sudden demise

Raducanu’s development ran so smoothly that she could be used as the paradigm for future development programmes. She was athletic and ambitious. She had sensible, inquiring, intelligent parents. She lived in the middle of a tennis-rich suburb, where her aspirational grammar school (Newstead Wood) backed onto one of the country's best local talent factories in Bromley Tennis Centre. Above all, she had an extraordinarily serene temperament.

"When she was seven, Emma won the Kent County Closed under-nines," said Hayden. "The girls played tie-breaks with an orange ball, and she won the final 7-0, 7-5. All she did was a little fist-pump before walking calmly up to the net for the handshake. You literally never see that. It's the biggest tennis day of the year for these kids, and she had just beaten an older girl in a tight finish. Anyone else would have been leaping and yelling and waving their arms around. For Emma it was just normal."

Would Raducanu have made it without Talent ID? Almost certainly, for she is the “generational phenomenon” that Betton was talking about earlier. But with so many other interests in her young life - including ballet and motocross - it can’t have hurt that she had a representative of the National Federation monitoring her, and presumably received some small show of financial support towards her coaching bills from an early age.

Raducanu at her home club in Bromley - JAMIE LORRIMAN
Raducanu at her home club in Bromley - JAMIE LORRIMAN

These coaching costs are the biggest issue for would-be tennis professionals, and one reason why so many talented young athletes opt for less expensive team sports - primarily football - instead. Yes, the Raducanu family lived in a pleasant and leafy area of south-east London, but they didn't have the independent means to fund full-time coaching plus occasional overseas travel, which is what a junior tennis career requires.

The LTA's wilderness years

In 2016, Talent ID closed. “The system has been very judgmental at an early age,” said Peter Keane, then the LTA performance director. “I think there is complete 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 coach with no managerial experience, to effectively run the performance department. The attitude of the time was that anyone outside the world's top 100 was, by definition, a failure.

Ironically, Downey’s brutal performance-department cutbacks - for which the then LTA chairman David Gregson must also be held accountable - arrived just as Murray was delivering the finest season of his career and reaching world No 1. Many believe that they stalled momentum within the British game at the worst possible time.

The LTA have access to the Wimbledon surplus, which runs to around £40-50m annually. And yet they didn't get around to proposing a replacement system for two years, until Simon Timson - yet another performance director - unveiled his vision of two shiny and ambitious National Academies based in Loughborough and Stirling in 2018.

There are now 19 children training across these two Academies, which aim to provide a total service of coaching, fitness and education (although the Stirling branch has not had the smoothest start in life and recently saw Brazilian head coach Leo Azevedo leave his post citing family issues).

Will they work? It’s impossible to know. As Raducanu’s case demonstrates, results can take decades to filter through. What we can say is that the LTA’s talent-development programme has never seen so much invested in so few. And that the rungs at the very bottom of the ladder - those that precede the offering of National Academy places at 13 or 14 - have largely been sawn 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 turn back time, I would change the name,” he says now, “because the system was about so much more than just identifying who the LTA should support financially. It was about a network of scouting and competition, plus the introduction of mini-tennis across the country. It was much-maligned and too radical for many people. But the key point is that we were identifying 400 kids to support. People can argue over whether they were always the right kids, but before Talent ID, we weren't supporting any.

"There are plenty of critical questions about the selection process," Jones continued, "but the one thing you shouldn’t do is stop selecting at all - and that's what has happened at the lower stages of the pathway. People say that young kids should just play and enjoy it, until they come to realise that they want to turn professional. But the reality - which many find unpalatable - is that the ones who make it big have often taken their sport incredibly seriously from a very early age. I see it here at Chelsea with people like 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 invest properly in it."

A new era at hand

The mechanics of talent development might seem like an esoteric debate - and indeed many academic treatises have been written on the subject, along with more populist treatments like Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers. In tennis, though, they will become increasingly relavent in the coming months.

The LTA's head of performance pathway, Ian Yates, is leaving in the New Year. Recruitment is underway for his successor, and it will be interesting to see whether Scott Lloyd - the organisation's latest chief executive - continues the recent policy of bringing in 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 lifers who have applied, so there is no dearth of candidates. This could be the time to pick an insider for once. As one applicant put it: "Tennis has always been my sport. I am obsessed with it, and expect to be on the court until I am 65 at least, whereas Timson came from a big job at UK Sport and went on to a big job at Manchester City four years later, as everyone knew he would from day one. It all adds to the instability in the system."

Turbulence has been the default state at Roehampton for as long as anyone can remember. Britain's tennis culture is much smaller than France's or Spain's, for instance, and it is difficult to compete with these tennis superpowers. But Raducanu's story shows the danger of abandoning programmes when they are still establishing themselves. Jones has a nice way of putting this. "We keep pulling the tree up to see if it is growing."

Yes, the narrowness of the National Academy programme remains a concern - because 18 balls in the lottery require a far higher hit rate than 400. But Loughborough's head coach Nick Cavaday is a skilled operator who worked with Raducanu herself in Bromley during her early teens. It would be hypocritical, in the light of the Talent ID story, to call for the programme to be abandoned before it has had a chance to prove itself.

At the same time, though, Yates's replacement needs to look at those years leading up to adolescence - which is when the Academies normally take over - and listen to what Jones is saying. There is precious little support for children in that awkward period between eight and 13, which leaves families to fall back on their own financial reserves or rely on ad hoc sponsorship deals. Who knows how many potential future champions could be slipping through our grasp.

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