London — New balls, please. That's the call from an official report into British tennis. Two weeks before the world-famous championships at Wimbledon, a special committee working with the Sports Council has slammed the Lawn Tennis Association (LTA) and the other British tennis organizations as stingy, unimaginative, and old-fashioned.
In America, tennis is still booming, with everything from Snoopy posters to bumper stickers reading "10 S N E 1?" (Tennis, anyone?) bandwagoning along. On the Continent, says the report, it is thriving -- and shifting from an elite to a popular sport.
But the situation in Britain, says John Smith, chairman of the Liverpool Football Club and chairman of the Inquiry Committee since it was formed in 1978, is "depressing." The number of clubs has dropped by one-third since 1959. Of the country's 34,000 courts, half are said to be inadequate.
Lawn tennis, more than a century old, is descended from a 12th century game played indoors on courts like those still attached to Cardinal Wolsey's 16th century palace at Hampton Court. But times have changed. The report notes a "desperate shortage" of indoor courts. Britain has 100, whereas France has 1, 200, which makes tennis a seasonal sport for all but a few British players.
Coaching is also said to be outdated. Grass-roots participation in the sport is lacking, and schools, with generally good facilities, still discourage boys and girls from playing.
The result, according to a former Davis Cup player interviewed by the committee, is that Britain "has the anomaly of possessing the world's No. 1 tournament -- and poorest lawn tennis environment in Western Europe."
In fact, Britain has not had a men's champion at Wimbledon since Fred Perry in 1936 -- and has never won a major singles championship for men overseas. Virginia Wade's Wimbledon win in 1977, however, made her the third British women's champion in that tournament.
The committee's most blistering service ace is reserved for the amateurish structure of the "inextricably interwoven" tennis hierarchy. The LTA, says the report, has poured its resources into top-level tennis, hoping to produce world-class players. In doing so it has "drained other sections dry," says the report, failing both to produce world-class players and to build a broad base from which to draw future players.
The LTA has no comment, although it stands accused of hoarding more than L2 milion ($4.6 million). "The committee fails to understand," the report wryly notes, "why these resources have not been used for the benefit of lawn tennis in Great Britain." The report hints that they have instead simply been invested.
So far, the advantage is apparently to the Sports Council, with the ball definitely in the LTA court. That, however, will probably cause no missed shots at this year's sold-out Wimbledon championship.
It will still hire 280 umpires and linesmen. It will still sell strawberries and cream to loungers on the broad lawns, still draw long queues of the hopeful to the ticket gates.
And, if the committee has its way, one of this year's watchers may someday be British champion.