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Interview: Alastair Marks, "The LTA has woken up and become organised"

Great Britain’s Davis Cup win last November ended a 79-year drought and captured the nation. The LTA’s director of participation wants to use that inspiration to cultivate the next generation of tennis players

by Matthew Campelli, Sports Management | Published in Sports Management 04 Apr 2016 issue 117
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Marks is hoping it won’t take another 79 years for Britain to win the Davis Cup
Marks is hoping it won’t take another 79 years for Britain to win the Davis Cup

The date 29 November 2015 is one which will likely be etched into the collective memory of British tennis fans everywhere, particularly the 1,300 who travelled to Belgium to see Britain’s Davis Cup team, led by Andy Murray and coach Leon Smith, break a 79-year drought to claim the title against home opposition. It was a glorious achievement for Murray, who also made history two years prior when he became the first British man since Fred Perry in 1936 to win Wimbledon.

Victory after such a long period of underachievement should have heralded a wave of positivity, but in the aftermath of the win Murray – who won the title alongside brother Jamie, Dan Evans, Dom Inglot, James Ward and Kyle Edmund – used the platform to criticise the sport’s governing body, the Lawn Tennis Association (LTA), claiming that it was failing to build on his success and develop the next generation of elite tennis player.

However, LTA director of participation Alastair Marks reckons the organisation has since “got its act together” and put participation at the heart of everything it’s doing. While Murray’s ire was to some extent directed at chief executive Michael Downey, who joined in January 2014, Marks told Sports Management that the LTA’s strategy of “participation first” has filtered down from Downey, who has made positive cultural changes to the organisation.

“The LTA has woken up and become organised,” he says. “We’re creating connections with coaches and creating more partnerships with local authorities to get stuff happening back in park courts.”

In order to boost participation and engagement, Marks and his team have devised the Tennis for Kids initiative to capitalise on Britain’s historic Davis Cup win. As part of the initiative, 1,000 Level Two tennis coaches are being mentored to run courses for 10,000 children aged 5-8 in schools up and down the country. “Coaches have been recruited on the basis that they are already in the game and very much at the start of their coaching journey,” Marks explains. “We focused on Level Two coaches because the have all been DBS checked (formerly CRB) and have done a base level number of hours coaching kids, but they need a bit more support from the LTA kick on in their coaching career.”

Coaches will be mentored by the likes of Smith and former British number ones Greg Rusedski and Annabel Croft. They will be provided equipment by the LTA and additional customer service support. Following the conclusion of their training in early April, the coaches will then travel to local schools to see if they can encourage sign-up.

According to Marks, the coaches will cover a wide geographic area and are representative of the racial and gender demographic split in the UK. Children will not be required to pay for the six-week course, and will each get a free racket. He also reveals that each coach will teach at least 10 children each and the initiative has cost the LTA over £1m.

Schools deemed as “hard-to-reach” will be targeted, and each venue that will be chosen by the coaches for the courses will be required to offer a follow-on option for those keen to continue participation.

The aim on the LTA’s part is to break down the perception of tennis as a sport for “white middle-class folks who play in a club and wear white”. While the latest Active People Survey figures from Sport England revealed that 22,800 more people played tennis between October 2014 and September 2015, Marks is not content to rest on his laurels.

Last year, under his watch, the LTA reviewed its whole programme for children’s participation in which its mini tennis programme – which coaches 140,000 kids nationwide – began to focus on training children based on their abilities and not their age, and working out how to get their parents involved.

But there are further barriers to participation that the LTA will need to counter concedes Marks. The grassroots facilities landscape is “evolving”, and while there is a stock of 23,000 courts – 15,000 in traditional clubs, 7,500 in local authority parks site, plus an additional 12,000 in education establishments – the lack of undercover courts (1,500) have given tennis a “weather surety” problem. Additionally, 65 per cent of courts could do with improvements.

“We have quite a big capital programme in terms of servicing, lights and installing cafes, but in reality we don’t have enough money to do everything we’d love to,” he says. “We probably put £5m a year into grant funding for facilities but if you equate that to the landscape I’d say it goes far, but not far enough.”

However, Marks reveals that later this year the LTA will announce a facilities plan that will detail how it will go about things in a “bigger and bolder way”. “Fundamentally, it will be founded on good people first and built around them.”

Unfortunately, tennis has not made the best of starts in 2016 with high-profile match-fixing allegations coming to light and the sport’s poster girl Maria Sharapova failing a drugs test at the 2016 Australian Open. Can such publicity affect participation? Marks isn’t sure.

“We tend not to see a correlation between adversity and participation quite so starkly. Look at Lance Armstrong. Has that affected people’s desire to cycle? Absolutely not.”

Marks is more concerned with looking at the positives and the opportunities of Britain’s Davis Cup win. He has optimistic hopes that a second title can be delivered to give his scheme another shot in the arm.

“Winning the Davis Cup gave us a golden opportunity to inspire a future generation and to get fans thinking about tennis.”

If Marks’ participation plan comes to fruition, you can be sure it won’t take Great Britain another 79 years to emerge triumphant from the Davis Cup or 87 years to deliver another Wimbledon champion. And hopefully, the LTA’s endeavours will not go unnoticed by Murray.

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