Andy Murray, The Man on the Moon and another Brick in the Wall — PLEASE!

23 Jul

The Dunblane Hydro Hotel stood with its impressive sloping lawns and period façade giving off all the aroma of a great country house perched on top of an imperious bank. As you enter through the gates, the Hotel looks down on you as if to ask “ And what is your business here?” long before you get to the entrance of the building itself.

I had been in the hotel on more than a few occasions, but on the occasion concerned ( I would estimate maybe 1991 or 1992 ) I was no more than a dinner guest having been invited to come “ for my dinner” at the behest of someone who was merely resident for a night or two in the splendid establishment.

The invitation, which was extended to myself and my wife – or should that be to my wife and myself?—had come from her uncle who met us at reception.

An Englishman in his fifties or early sixties, with a balding head, thin and looking as fit as a fiddle he greeted us in his usual warm and friendly fashion resplendent in a pair of khaki coloured slacks, white shirt, red tie and dark blue blazer.

He greeted his niece with a kiss and shook me warmly by the hand

“ How you doing? Hey this is a bit of alright!” he said indicating the impressive hotel “ I feel as if I have to tidy my room and everything – its beautiful—far too good for the likes of me!” he added – in what could only be described as his soft  and so completely natural Geordie accent.

He was staying at the hotel with a colleague, whose name I forget, and who in the course of the evening would join us for dinner and engage in the conversation when our host would pause for breath – although to be fair all four of us were fairly lively in the chatting stakes.

The man extending the dinner invitation to myself and my wife for the evening was called Gerry Mason—although I called him Gerard.

I should add that Gerard was originally a Geordie – coming from the Jesmond Dene area of Newcastle but by this time was living in a house in North Shields heading towards Whitley Bay.

However, once a Geordie always a Geordie and soon enough he started to ask or talk about football, Celtic ( whom he knew I supported ) and all things sports related. This was, as usual, nothing more than an excuse for him to reminisce about great Scottish Newcastle players of the past. Frank Brennan, Bobby Mitchell, Ronnie Simpson and his pal Bob Moncur.

Gerard had been a pupil at St Joseph’s school in Dumfries and knew all about Brother Walfrid and the Celtic story. On leaving school he had qualified as a teacher and his area of expertise was physical education and sports coaching which in turn lead to a working life that was fascinating – involving stints in the Caribbean and elsewhere. That working life is what caused him to be sitting at the dinner table in the Dunblane Hydro Hotel pouring wine and waxing lyrical.

“ So—what are you doing here then Gerard?” I asked.

He pointed to the badge on the breast pocket of his blazer and said “ Coaching for this lot!” with the Geordie accent getting thicker by the minute.

I had noticed the blazer and the pocket which proclaimed that Gerard was there on behalf of the LTA – The Lawn tennis Association!

“ Who are you coaching up here?” I asked pushing further.

“ You won’t believe me when I tell you” he replied “ We ( indicating his colleague ) are coaching blind folk and those who are visually impaired!”

“ Eh – are you telling me that you are trying to coach blind people to play tennis?”

“ Yeah – the blind and others who are not quite blind but have a vision impairment!”

“ Is that not impossible?”

“ Whadya mean impossible?” he replied in that lilting singsong accent. “ They’re blind – or can’t see—They ain’t dead!…. and if they ain’t dead then they can be coached—besides they are mad keen!”

“ No—sorry I am not getting this, how do you teach a blind person to play tennis?”

“Ok” said Gerry “ First of all you modify the equipment, the rules and the court. The balls are adapted to have something inside like a rattle that makes a noise—so you can hear it moving through the air and when it bounces. Second, the racquets are shorter—more or less a grip with just a head and no neck or a very short neck. Next, if you are totally blind then the ball can bounce three times before you have to hit back over the net—if you are partially sighted then you are allowed two bounces, and last ignore the tram lines, more or less play within the service boxes. Beyond that, you teach them to move their feet, hold the racquet head up, swing at the all properly, point the racquet properly at the end of each shot ……………and ignore any disability completely!

They can hear the ball, judge where it is and as a result they adapt and play……. Naturally and on instinct…… and instinct comes with practice!

It is like coaching anyone else really – and I’ll tell you this there are some good players!”

It will come as no surprise that I was gobsmacked! Here was sports coaching at its best—ignore the disability, adapt the game and the equipment and make the seemingly impossible happen.

However, as I was to learn with Gerard Mason, there would often be a sting in the tail – or perhaps a sting in the tale— to one of his diatribes – and sure enough here it came:

“ It is a great innovation, and a really worthwhile exercise seeing the pleasure the players get out of it—but there needs to be more facilities, more classes, more coaches but there is no chance of that!”

“ Why not?”

“ Because of this lot!” he said pointing to the badge in the blazer.

“Sorry?”

“The LTA!” said Gerry “ They are bloody useless!”

“Really?  They must be good at something—they got you here!”

“ Good at something? I’ll tell you what they are good at! Good at making Blazers!.. and that’s about it! Why should they have to get me all the way up here from Tyne and Weir, waste money putting me up in a nice hotel just to coach blind folk to play Tennis in Dunblane? Is there no one who can play tennis and coach it in Scotland? Or did they just not look?”

He went on:

“ The LTA are totally focused on the Home Counties and bugger all else.”

“ Me? I could just as easily be stationed on the moon —– and Scotland? Scotland is about as far away as Neptune and if you are forced to send someone to Neptune then send the nearest guy – basically me—The man on the moon!”

“ So—do you think Tennis is ignored here then?”

“ No—it’s not ignored— it’s just not supported and not encouraged— not in the same way it is down South — they need to change their attitude—and listen to people like me who are perceived as…… well pains in the neck! Even the blind can play on instinct with practice — but practice requires opportunity….. and for the LTA, they focus on providing opportunities elsewhere—- not here!”

“So—what are the chances of Scotland producing a world class Tennis player then?”

“ Absolutely None—Nada—nowt! The only way that will ever happen is if there is a kid out there somewhere with real talent and someone gets him or her early enough and gives them one really good piece of basic coaching advice.”

“ And what would that be Gerard?”

“ Stay as far away as possible from the LTA – bugger off somewhere else with facilities and coaches  and be taught how to play – especially if you don’t have a home counties accent!”.

Little did we know that at very moment, a small boy was in his house only a few hundred yards away— and that the same small boy would reach the summit in terms of not only British but World tennis—- by essentially following the very route outlined by Gerard Mason over his steak and chips.

The Andy Murray story cannot be summed up properly in the course of one article or story—and in truth, Murray owes a debt of gratitude to the failures of the LTA over a period of decades.

It is sometimes very easy to forget that the last British Singles Grand Slam winner before Murray was Virginia Wade in 1977 AND that Sue Barker captured the Ladies French Open title the year before! It is also easy to forget that two Scots ( Winnie Shaw and Joyce Williams ) made it to the quarter finals of the women’s doubles at Wimbledon in 1972 and that Winnie Shaw reached the finals of both the ladies doubles and the mixed doubles, and twice made it to the semi-finals in the French Open. She played twice in the Australian Open semi-finals.

British Tennis should have kicked on from that glorious period— but it didn’t – instead it got stuck in a stupid and totally avoidable rut for a period of years because it did not learn a lesson and did not see what was going on around the rest of the world—perhaps it didn’t want to see!

In the same year that Wee Sue won the French, I watched the men’s singles final at Wimbledon on the television amid the leafy splendour of a village in upstate New York.

At the time, Ardsley had a population of around 2,000 people, and it was there I cheered on Ilie Nastase to no avail against the emergent Swedish sex symbol and superstar Bjorn Borg in what was to be the start of the Bjorg reign of 5 years.

That summer, I joined the open air sports centre ( or center ) in Ardsley for the princely sum of $1. This gained me entry to an outdoor Olympic size swimming pool, Mini league baseball diamond, full size baseball diamond, Basketball courts, parks, lawns, picnic tables, restaurant and bar……. and 21 full size all weather tennis courts!

All for a population of 2,000!

In contrast, I believe that the whole of Scotland boasted just one all weather tennis court at the time…. At Craiglockhart!

Now, if there was anyone who was literally born with a tennis racquet in their hand it would be Tim Henman.

Tim’s mother Jane played Junior Wimbledon and introduced Tim and his elder brothers Michael and Richard to tennis as soon as they could walk on the family’s grass tennis court in their back garden. His great grandfather played at Wimbledon. His maternal grandfather, Henry Billington, played at Wimbledon between 1948 and 1951, and he represented Britain in the Davis Cup in 1948, 1950 and 1951. In 1901 his maternal great-grandmother, Ellen Stanwell-Brown (or Ellen Mary Stowell-Brown), was reputedly the first woman to serve overarm at Wimbledon. His maternal grandmother, Susan Billington, appeared regularly at Wimbledon in the 1950s, playing mixed doubles on Centre Court with her husband Henry, reaching the third round of the ladies’ doubles in 1951, 1955 and 1956.

In short, Tennis was absolutely in Tim Henman’s genes and in his back yard.

Yet despite this, and coming from Oxfordshire ( ripe LTA territory if you like ) Tim would not reach the heights achieved by Murray ( though you have to be some player to get to four Grand Slam Semi’s in the one year ).

However, the Murray story owes something to Tim.

Henman went to the Slater school of Tennis — a group who were financed by the former financier Jim Slater — and who were coached in the Tennis skills along lines that were slightly different to those adopted by the LTA.

In other words— Henman followed the route that was outlined by Gerard Mason over the dinner table — he avoided the LTA. Not only that, among those at the Slater school at the time, Tim was not especially rated with other kids being tipped for far greater success!

However, while others may have had more natural skill than Henman, what they appear not to have had was Tim’s desire to improve and what was to prove to be his greatest asset—his head!

Tim Henman’s own journey is worth a blog in itself, however that is perhaps for another day, his mention here is merely to point out that the most recent British tennis icon BEFORE Murray did not go the LTA route but was part of the Slater squad which was distinctly separate and different.

A couple of years ago, I wrote about Murray and said that from what I had been told he had the head and the game to go to the top notwithstanding Federer, Nadal and Djokovic.

In response, I received a comment from someone who said that they could not care less as Murray was no more than a “poor little rich boy playing an elitist sport!”.

I believe that statement to be both right and wrong.

I do not believe that Andy Murray comes from a rich family. A middle class one perhaps, and even rich in comparison to some others, but not “Rich” in the sense that his family did not have a financial care in the world and could just afford to send him off to Tennis School without a second thought, a sacrifice and some financial assistance.

Nor do I believe that Tennis is an elitist sport.

However, I do believe that the LTA and many others in Britain ( Including Governments and Local Authorities ) inadvertently do their damndest to make the sport elitist—so in that sense the commentator was in fact correct.

Not long after losing to Roger Federer last year or the year before, Andy Murray came to Braehead to play Davis Cup tennis. He was taken aback at the welcome he received and indeed was tearful when he saw the warmth of the reception.

However, what was shocking was that here was one of the world stars of the sport playing in Scotland, and who volunteered to give up his own time to play some exhibition tennis and provide some coaching for local kids…… only to find that there were no public courts!

Hastily, Renfrew district council repaired and restored long abandoned and ignored courts in Paisley—so that the great star of British tennis could be seen to be playing with the kids! Until that moment—the kids who wanted to play tennis could go and raffle themselves—or of course join the David Lloyd Club or pay handsomely to play at another private tennis club!

I have no doubt that Judy Murray was in or about Dunblane Tennis Club when Gerard Mason was coaching the blind. I also have no doubt that she shared Gerard’s then view of the failings of the LTA – although I have no idea whether she actually spoke to “ The man on the moon” personally.

However, within a few years of that Dinner in Dunblane a young 18 year old man called Leon Smith began coaching at club level and within two years he became the national performance officer for Tennis Scotland.

Smith would go on to coach a young Murray and the two have stayed in touch ever since – with Smith filling the coaching void not that long ago when Andy Murray was between coaches. Since those early days, as Murray’s star has risen so has Smith’s becoming the LTA’s national under-16s men’s coach in 2005 and the under-18s coach in 2008. He was later appointed Head of Player Development in Men’s Tennis, and promoted to Head of Men’s Tennis simultaneously to his appointment as Davis Cup captain. In 2011 he became Head of Women’s Tennis in addition to his existing responsibilities.

Gerard Mason is sadly no longer with us, but he would be astonished by the fact that a Glaswegian now holds such sway within the organisation he branded best at making blazers!

That is real progress!

However, there is a long way to go yet, because despite the best efforts of Tennis Scotland, Leon Smith, Andy Murray, Judy Murray and oh so many more, Tennis is still too “elitist” in the sense that not enough people can easily get to play the game because it is “club “ based and therefore can cost money!

Now, there are public courts ( Those at Kelvingrove in Glasgow are being restored ) but there are not nearly enough—and nowehere near enough thought is given to the provision of “facilities”.

At its very basic level Tennis requires one racquet – or bat– and a ball — unlike golf with its numerous clubs. It also requires space – and again I stress a far smaller space than either a football pitch or a golf course!

So let me go back to the summer of 1976 and my trip to Ardsley because there in the sports centre I was shown a unique piece of equipment that was available to all which I have not mentioned yet and which should be made readily available just about anywhere in Scotland— yet isn’t!

As I drive about the land and see money being spent on new schools which come with astroturf pitches, all weather surfaces and all sorts of other facilities, I am constantly amazed at the repeated absence of this one piece of equipment amidst all this expenditure. I have been to new schools and seen climbing walls, theatres, swimming pools, gymnasiums and all sorts of clever things designed by architects and whoever……….. but nowhere do I see this most ingenious piece of basic equipment.

In the Ardsley sports centre, as well as the full sized Tennis Courts, Baseball Diamonds, Basketball courts, swimming pools and so on there were eight or twelve other courts.

These were the most popular and were nearly always in use.

They were bounded by fences just like the Tennis Courts and inside the fencing there were the tram lines and service boxes of a Tennis Court – except that where the net should have been there was a 15 foot high plain flat wall – with a true surface!

Painted on the wall, at precisely the height of a Tennis net, was a straight red line showing where the net should be. I should also add that the wall was also painted with white lines showing the dimensions of a soccer goal,  and Multi coloured targets at different heights!

Whenever I went to the centre—no matter what time— there would be kids and adults, hitting balls off the wall with racquets, or with their hands and feet.

Kids were being coached in swinging a racquet, striking the ball truly and receiving it back from the wall to strike again—- time after time after time. Many others were not being coached at all—they were just kids hitting a ball off the wall with effectively a “bat” – it didn’t cost anything, and they just got better and better and better. The more the wall delivered the ball back, the better they became at moving their feet, swinging the racquet and striking the ball.

Whatsmore—they all seemed to be having a good time!

Strange that!

I saw coaching sessions in those cages – boys and girls kicking a soccer ball repeatedly off the wall ( anyone who knows the story of Bobby Charlton at Manchester United will know he was told to go away and strike the ball of a wall time after time—left foot – right foot ) both shooting and passing –              ( remind me again why it is called a wall pass ).

Kids with basket balls were being trained to run, dribble, hit a target on the wall, let it bounce back to them, collect the ball and run on to the next target.

In short, in 1976 local authorities in the USA saw the need to provide sports facilities that allowed kids to develop eye, hand, foot, ball co-ordination skills both under a coaching system and in their private time—by hitting balls off a wall.

So—on the back of Wimbledon success—Andy Murray calls for Tennis to be made more available to a far wider group of folk!

Do you think he means that private tennis clubs should lower their prices or that David Lloyd and First Generation clubs should make less of a profit?

I doubt it.

And of course Mr Cameron and Mr Salmond ( neither of whom contributed a brass farthing towards Murray’s development – but who still manage to get Centre Court tickets on men’s final day ) immediately respond by getting on their soap boxes and pledging sums of money (which they didn’t have the week before) to promote tennis – with no thought as to how and where it should be spent for the benefit of the public!

To be the very best, Andy Murray had to go abroad to receive the type of coaching which was just not available in Britain and even the employment of Ivan Lendl shows that at each stage of his career he needed to access expertise which was just not available to him here in Britain.

However, to be healthy, fit, and able to play tennis needs nothing more than a bat and a ball, some public courts and a set of walls to hit a ball off time and time again – then you can progress to courts and coaching.

Give a kid a bat, a ball and a wall — stand back and leave those kids alone— and watch what happens! Even blind kids can play with modified equipment……… If they ain’t dead they can be coached!!!!

Murray’s achievement is truly astonishing…… it is one of the all time great sports stories.

I believe he can and will go on to achieve more success.

However, his great wish is for more people to be able to play tennis here in Scotland and providing basic facilities in schools where kids can practice is not difficult or costly – all you have to do is put the building blocks in place.

It is not nearly as difficult as putting a man on the moon.

A Bat,  a ball and a good old fashioned Scottish Wall.

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4 Responses to “Andy Murray, The Man on the Moon and another Brick in the Wall — PLEASE!”

  1. Rory MacLeod July 23, 2013 at 1:20 pm #

    Inspiring article.. Would be nice if some government officials could read it..

    • Brogan Rogan Trevino and Hogan July 23, 2013 at 1:29 pm #

      By the way I should add that the Tennis Scotland site is very much worth a visit as there are lots of facilities within clubs that encourage kids and others to play Tennis. A few years ago I was in Barcelona and watched on a November morning as a set of Tennis Courts outside my hotel window were filled up between 9 and 10 am. The tennis was by no means the most stringent or competitive, but the great thing was that all the players had white hair– men and women of a certain age exercising and having fun.

      A Bat…. a ball….. and the opportunity to play!!!!

  2. Lubo Larsson July 23, 2013 at 1:55 pm #

    Another great read from BRTH. I read Andy’s biography after he won the US Open and perhaps one of the most shocking revelations was that Jaime Murray, who was one of the top juniors in the world for his age group was “broken” by the LTA. Family talk about a much changed boy on his return with altered forehand and natural competive spirit dulled. Family swore that Andy would never go that route – hence Barcelona and his wonderful achievements now.
    It’s been an absolute joy to watch Andy Murray on his journey to the ultimate prize in his sport. For me, the greatest sporting achievement ever!

  3. charliebhoy July 24, 2013 at 2:26 am #

    great stuff thanks brth for another great read

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