Commentary

The LTA's roadmap takes yet another turn

In 2007, tennis' upper echelons dealt with match-fixing allegations, a bizarre retirement and a possible poisoning. Meanwhile, Great Britain's Lawn Tennis Association had its own mini-crises.

Originally Published: December 27, 2007
By Ravi Ubha | Special to ESPN.com

LONDON -- While the upper echelons in tennis this year dealt with match-fixing allegations, Martina Hingis' bizarre drug saga and investigated claims that Tommy Haas might have been poisoned Cold War-style during Davis Cup duty, Great Britain's Lawn Tennis Association had its own mini-crises.

Brad Gilbert, recipient of what had to have been the most lucrative coaching contract in the sport, split with the talented -- and brooding -- Andy Murray; Peter Lundgren, the Swede who steered Roger Federer to his first Grand Slam title, was given a leave of absence after reportedly slurring his words at a conference; and two juniors were suspended for publicizing their, shall we say, bad habits, on a social networking Web site.

To boot, two years into chief executive Roger Draper's much-publicized plan to revitalize British tennis, which involved hiring several other high-profile coaches for big bucks, only Scotland's Murray is in the top 100 in singles following the retirement of stalwarts Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski.

[+] EnlargeBrad Gilbert and Andy Murray
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesAndy Murray, right, has opted to have a team of coaches in 2008 rather than work with Brad Gilbert.
"Roger came in and said our coaches are rubbish, basically, and that we need top-class coaches, and that would make a difference," said Mark Petchey, Murray's one-time coach and the former head of men's tennis at the LTA. "They come in, and it's been a complete failure on the men's side, unqualified. There has been no benefit on the men's side at all because we're the worst we've been for 20 years."

That says something, given Britain's last men's singles Grand Slam champion was Fred Perry, way back in 1936. (Jamie Murray, Andy's older brother, won the Wimbledon mixed-doubles title in July with Jelena Jankovic, and much hoopla there was.)

Gilbert, who last year was handed a three-year deal worth about $1.3 million per season plus bonuses, was supposed to be the LTA's savior by guiding Murray to that elusive major. Even though he led the right-hander to the top 10 and got him into shape by working with Olympic champion Michael Johnson and Mark Grabow, the director of athletic development for the NBA's Golden State Warriors, Gilbert was apparently too talkative for the 20-year-old and they split in November, months after rumors of an impending separation surfaced.

Several times during their partnership, Murray berated Gilbert during matches, with the black-cap-toting Californian looking down and shaking his head in the stands. More than a few involved in British tennis shook their heads when the LTA then announced that Gilbert, who worked wonders with Andre Agassi and Andy Roddick, would now coach journeyman Alex Bogdanovic, though in a reduced role after his contract was apparently altered.

Draper, in an interview with the Sunday Telegraph this month, said the money on Gilbert was well spent. He declined an interview request by ESPN.com.

"I think now that the inevitable falling out has happened, they're in a bit of an awkward position," said American Peter Fleming, the former doubles standout who's lived in London the past 15 years. "They say they're happy to splash out that kind of money on Brad. Can you rationalize spending that on the guys he'll be coaching?"

Not so, is the general consensus among the rabid English media, which has pounced on Draper. Draper's hiring of Gilbert, predominantly to work with Murray, suggested his top priority was to produce a Grand Slam champion, and quick. But in the interview with the Telegraph, Draper said his "legacy" would be judged over the next 10 years and depend on the "production line of people coming through and the growth of the sport."

There are other contradictions. In September, Draper said he wanted at least five top-100 players by 2012, when London hosts the Olympics. Last year, then-new LTA president Stuart Smith demanded a similar quota, but by 2008.

At Wimbledon last summer, despite the importing of other coaches, including American Paul Annacone, Belgian Carl Maes and German Jens Gerlach, the regime blamed the players when another woeful fortnight ensued.

When Draper took up his post in April 2006, nine men were in the top 300, five more than now. Among the women, there's six now instead of five, though top-ranked Katie O'Brien, 21, is hardly considered a top prospect with a ranking of 125th.

Bogdanovic, a talented Serbian-born lefty who'd seem to be the ideal candidate to benefit from those coaches, has slipped about 50 spots to No. 190.

All this while the LTA receives about $50 million annually from Wimbledon proceeds, which previous administrations, it should be pointed out, benefited from, too.

"Why appoint all these heady people when a five-year journey should be looking at the root problems?" asked one British coach who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Actually, they'll go, 'This isn't a five-year journey, this is a 30-year journey,' because the No. 1 problem that exists around performance is that our competitive base is completely and absolutely naff."

"Before, we had a few players and people just got on with it," said another coach who didn't want to be identified. "Now, because they're paying the huge salaries, that's what [other coaches] are laughing at. Coaches come up to you and say, 'I lost my job, I'll go to the LTA.' It's a laughingstock from that perspective."

The long-term future looks uncertain, at best. At the recently completed Eddie Herr International in Bradenton, Fla., a marquee junior event, Laura Robson triumphed in the girls' 14 category, but only two others among about 40 Brits competing made the quarterfinals. Ominously, in the 18-and-under bracket, one of 10 got past the second round. In the 12-and-under category -- an age where future progress is admittedly much harder to predict -- three advanced to the second round. Stephanie Cornish, though, was a 16-and-under semifinalist at last month's Orange Bowl, perhaps the most prestigious junior showcase, also in Florida.

And who knows what the immediate future holds for Andy Murray? He's using a team of coaches in 2008, pretty much paying his own way. Some are LTA employees -- such as his first coach, Leon Smith, and Canadian Louis Cayer -- though Miles Maclagan, a former British Davis Cupper, appears to be the top contender to be the main man, or as main as possible in the unorthodox setup.

"As someone who still needs to develop both his game and as a person, I think it might not be helpful for Andy to have a big entourage," 1991 Wimbledon champion Michael Stich told reporters in London last week at the BlackRock Masters. "I think it can be dangerous having a big entourage, but Andy has to find out himself. If Andy can't handle Gilbert, then it may be tough for him to handle several people.'"

Still, Fleming said all the blame shouldn't be directed at Draper's regime. Fleming grew up playing in a tiny club in New Jersey that had four outdoor courts, but none indoors. The humble environment produced not only Fleming but Fritz Buehning, who went on to become a top-25 player in singles and top-10 in doubles.

"My dad was quite a good player, and he sort of had a few of his buddies on the committee of this club, and they encouraged us to play," Fleming said. "It was just kind of a nurturing atmosphere. Everyone's looking for the LTA to do it. They say, 'Why can't they do it? They must be lame.' In fact, maybe it requires a few people to just take it upon themselves."

Ravi Ubha is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.

London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for ESPN.com.