As Wimbledon begins again, and particularly when Andy Murray isn’t there to play for UK tennis glory, we start soul-searching about why we don’t have more talented juniors coming thru. Inevitably we ask, “Why haven’t we got more players in the top 50-100?
i2c’s Head of Performance coaching, Adam Wharf, is the ideal person to dispel the myths and talk about the talent pipeline in the UK and abroad.
Interview with Adam Wharf, “Is the talent pipeline in UK tennis broken?”
Tennis(24/7): Let’s start at the very beginning. Is it true; does the UK have fewer talented players coming through?
Adam: Controversially, I think that actually is not true! Within the UK, I think, at this moment in time, we have a few players that are making the main draw of Wimbledon – which is good news for UK tennis. Obviously, we’ve also got other people like Kyle Edmund that are right inside the top 20, which we never previously had.
For many years we only ever used to have one hope and one person competing. Whether that was Edmund. Whether that was Murray, or going back even further, the only hope used to sort of be Jeremy Bates, who was around when I was growing up. He was about one hundred in the world. I believe, as a country, we have moved a long way forward.
Unfortunately, a lot of the time, we are compared against some of the world’s biggest tennis nations. We are compared to the French and possibly the Spanish, who have amazing numbers within the top 200, which we don’t have. They possibly have about 10 to 12 players, possibly even more than that in the top 200. Our numbers on that would look like a failure in comparison because we would probably be around four players.
Tennis(24/7): What makes them major tennis nations compared to the UK? Is it the sunshine?
Adam: The sunshine definitely helps! I think there is no argument against the sunshine. If you get to play outside all year round, then I believe it definitely helps. I wouldn’t deny that. However, the French have got some turbulent weather. So I don’t think it’s just down to that. I think it is a multitude of factors.
To understand it you have to look at French tennis and their local tennis clubs and the number of people playing tennis in France. You’ve also got to factor in the consistency of their set up over many, many years, as well as a very strong governing body set up. That governing structure on top of their club structure provides a very concrete base for French tennis and how they will continue forwards.I believe that they [France] are well set up to continue to be a great tennis nation.
The Spanish – I actually understand their situation less. Their national governing body, I believe, is quite complicated – but actually, not that much goes through their “system”. They’ve had some struggles in recent times I believe. But they’ve got plenty of tennis courts and good weather in Spain, growing up on the clay. Potentially yes, of course, it helps – but I don’t think it’s solely down to the weather.
Tennis(24/7): What is it that the UK doesn’t have? You mentioned that in France they’ve got a strong governing body and certainly the UK have that, and we have programs and local clubs. What is it about all of that, that is different in the UK than in France?
Adam: I think I mentioned it briefly is, I think we do have a good governing body set up. It is well publicized that we are well financed through being a Grand Slam nation. That is good – really good. What the French have done, I believe, is that they’ve run the same system or a very similar system for many, many years and stuck to that. That consistency has been positive for them.
Tennis(24/7): Does the UK lag in facilities?
Adam: People argue this a lot about facilities in this country. To me, it is right in the balance because you could go to another country, for example – I’ve been to Poland. It’s a small nation but quite highly successful in the higher echelons of the sport. Their facilities are way worse than ours. Their weather may be similar and they’re a lot smaller nation. I don’t think that it is solely down to facilities.
If we have another 35 new indoor centres, will it change things straight away and will that be the make-or-break? I don’t think so.
Tennis(24/7): Is it maybe a little bit of a mindset, putting tennis into the agenda for kids in this country?
Adam: Yes. That’s a really great question. I read about Iceland and the football. I thought that that was the most phenomenal setup, where you were designated a football coach from age four. I thought to myself, if we were able to designate a local tennis club and a local coach to each four-year-old that starts school and that became integrated into their lives, what a fantastic opportunity that could be and a great idea that something as large as the governing body could tap into or even the local club could start that process.
I really wish that tennis was more part of the infrastructure because it’s such a great sport for young children. We actually do have a lot of local facilities that people could be actively involved with. Whether that’s parks, small tennis clubs or large tennis clubs. I think there is a big opportunity for that to happen.
Tennis(24/7): I’m going to move away from that channel of thought now and go back to looking at the British juniors that we have coming through the ranks. How do they compare with juniors around the world?
Adam: We have generally had at least a couple, two to five juniors that have probably reached world standards in and around an age that would be relevant to keep them on track for international tennis. The names that come to mind at the moment are Jack Draper and Anton Matusevich. Two British boys. Jack Draper, I believe, is probably about 20 in the world and the juniors. Anton is also a top 50 player.
Those boys are well on track and have been on track for international tennis for a fair few years. We do get children there. At times though, the Americans I believe are a step ahead of us. They’re bringing in juniors to an exceptionally high level in the very early teenage years. By the time the children are 15 or 16, they’re making big breakthroughs. To be really special and to be a top 20 in the world player, which is what we’re looking to produce, we also I think have to understand that how special and how difficult that is for any nation to do.
I think that there is a lot of pressure on us to put loads of those people forward. I also believe that every nation struggles to do that, not just our own.
Tennis(24/7): What does that mean for the way we teach and coach? Is there a difference in how the players come through, how they’re trained? Is there anything that we are looking to change or could change?
Adam: I think we need to have a very broad spectrum of players coming through. We have to have our eyes open very wide for possibilities. At the same time, we need to understand what can happen with children along their developmental pathway because we really do never know what’s going to happen. For me, I would say yes, be wide-eyed, don’t narrow our thoughts too soon or put on too much pressure sometimes on someone that could be a great junior hope.
Sometimes, I think that we’ve (coaches in general) got a little bit narrow-sighted. It’s easy to do. That means that some children maybe don’t get the opportunity that they may have deserved because they previously weren’t spotted as a youngster or previously weren’t seen as a great opportunity. I think just to keep our eyes open and to give everybody a chance whenever that arises.
Tennis(24/7): Can I please clarify that? Do you mean, in some ways, to spread the net, cast the net wider. Is that what you mean?
Adam: Yes. I think the net is cast quite wide. I think we’re not bad at casting the net wide. We introduce people to the sport I believe relatively well. However, I think that we want to find the diamond very early rather than let them all grow a little bit and provide lots of opportunities and help people as much as we can but not to commit our final decision too early. That is how I would describe it. Sometimes, I think that we go in, we make decisions early, and sometimes that can miss a diamond in the long run.
Tennis(24/7): Is there any difference do you think, to the amount of tennis that our up-and-coming juniors play versus players overseas?
Adam: From the research that I have come across I would probably say no. Also, it can be highly varied. You could have some youngsters playing maybe 25 hours a week. When I say youngster, I mean a 16-year-old or 15-year-old or even 14-year-old that can be playing 35 hours a week and be internationally at a good level. You could also have some youngsters playing 16 hours a week and those people also being internationally highly credible.
I think it is actually something very important that we need to look at, to see if children are pushing their ceiling too early by playing too much tennis very early or we have somebody else that is still very good but maybe has a lot of room for growth. Generally, our overall aim in how much tennis people are playing is pretty good, but I would say that it doesn’t matter how much you play, it matters how good that time is. How focused is the time, how well organized is it, and for what reason are they playing?
I think those points are probably more important than the actual numbers and hours of time that you’re doing.
Tennis(24/7): Do we lose talented up and coming players in the transition from the juniors to the Open Tour?
Adam: People love to ask that question!
We don’t lose them. They haven’t got lost anywhere! They’re still there. I find this very interesting because I think people have forgotten that junior tennis might involve two to three age groups. I might be 16, I might compete against other 16-year-olds, some 17-year-olds and some 18-year-olds and that’s the Junior Tour.
Then now, when I go on to the Senior Tour, I’m now competing with everybody from players possibly aged 17 to Roger Federer in his late 30s. Now, I’m fighting in a window of 20 years. Suddenly, that is extremely difficult – making it extremely difficult for a youngster to break through. I believe the figure for the number of players that break through into the top 100 every year, is somewhere between one to three players.
The numbers in and out of the top 100 are also very few and far between. I think it’s important that people understand that the turnaround is tiny. The number of people that breakthrough across the whole of the world is very, very small on a year-to-year basis. I think that this is misunderstood.
Tennis(24/7): Do some of those who don’t “make it” stay around? It just takes them longer to make that transition perhaps – because a 17-year-old competing against a full-grown person at 25 is hard?
Adam: Yes. On average, I think the figures would probably show you that. Let’s say that you turn professional at age 18. It will, on average, be at least four years until you break into the top 100. That would be on an exceptionally quick pathway.
Tennis(24/7): We think they’re lost but actually, it’s just a natural process?
Adam: Yes. They’re going through the long, difficult journey of trying to make it to that golden area of inside the top 100. Then, almost the lottery inside the top 100 of what really makes somebody that becomes top 20 or top 10 or possibly even top 5 and then top 3, 2, and 1 in the world. There are many, many hurdles to get over and people, I don’t think, quite recognize the length of time that that takes in order to break through to that.
Tennis(24/7): Can you tell me what is it that we do well in the UK?
I think that we bring participation to people actually pretty well. We have good ideas on how to bring tennis to a lot of people. I think, as a sport, we’ve done well getting into schools and integrating with schools.
In comparison to other sports, I believe that our coaches are very well qualified, well organized on the coaching side. The opportunities that we get there, within our coaching is very, very good. I think that we offer good levels of supports to people. Also, within this country, we have great opportunities for high-level players. Financially, we are able to provide those opportunities which many other nations actually can’t do. I think that the number of opportunities that are available from this country within our sport is fantastic.
Tennis(24/7): Lastly, what do you think that we learn from coaches in other countries?
Adam: It’s a good question. I think that what we could really do is share our ideas both scientifically and practically far better. I think within our sport currently, we are poor at that. I think we’re a bit closed off. I don’t think that we interact enough with other coaches from other nations and when we do, we could improve our ability to share ideas.
Even if we have spoken to them or we have seen them in action, we could improve how we disseminate information to more of our coaches. I think is an area where we could really, really get better and have better platforms to share what we’re doing and what we’re finding successful or what we’re researching. I think that would be a great step forward for us.