Amateur athletes in a professional age – where has the money gone?

On the day that UK Sport’s cuts to some sports funding comes into effect, you can’t help thinking that we find ourselves in a bizarre situation.

Sport is a money-making behemoth. You only need to go to a Premier League match or a major tennis tournament to understand the scale of the financial operation. There are so many people and so many businesses who choose to tie their interests up with professional sport.

So how are we in a position where badminton, wheelchair rugby, archery, fencing and weightlifting will all lose the UK Sport funding they rely on?

The athletes who will be hit are all professionals. Most of them are very successful professionals. Chris Langridge and Marcus Ellis won the men’s doubles bronze at the Rio Olympics, Britain’s first badminton medal in 12 years. They will have to fund themselves on tour, as badminton loses all its £5.7million UK Sport funding today.

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Have UK Sport cocked up? Image credit: Dee’Lite (Flickr).

Participation figures in badminton have been in steady decline since 2008. And if you look at the situation now, what reasons would there be to pick up a shuttlecock?

Even worse is the situation for wheelchair rugby. Their athletes performed valiantly in Rio, finishing fifth. And their thanks? The loss of £750,000 a year of vital UK Sport’s funding.

I was told by a source close to the top of the GB Wheelchair Rugby hierarchy that the GB team could be disbanded within the year if funds aren’t found sharp-ish. That is a shocking statement.

It goes without saying that the most visible sports are also the most monied. They perpetuate each other. So it’s easy to forget that, for the vast majority of professional athletes, it’s often a case of scraping by.

I can’t help thinking that it’d be nice to redistribute certain players’ Premier League wages…

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The Big Four – architects of their own downfall?

The Big Four are not as dominant as they once were. For the first time since 1998, eight different men and women have won the respective Grand Slam singles titles. They muscled their way to the top – quite literally – and have shown little signs of relinquishing their dominance before this year.

So what’s gone wrong? Two have spent most of the injured or in surgery. The other is 33-years old and a father of four. And Djokovic, despite his supreme form at Wimbledon, has looked underwhelming ever since.

But there’s more to it than meets the eye. Roger Federer’s first Wimbledon win in 2003 marked a changing of the guard. From the wam-bam-thankyou-man of Sampras and Ivanisevic, to the more physical game brought about with slower courts and better rackets.

And of course 2005 marked Rafael Nadal’s explosion onto the Grand Slam scene. On clay at least, Federer had to work hard to compete over the course of brutally long matches. Those three or four years of dominance have taken their toll on a 28 year old Nadal. He set the bar and is now struggling to reach it again.

Murray and Djokovic were next; both struggled with fitness in the early stage of their careers and embarked on intensive strength and conditioning regimes. Murray is now once again back on the road to recovery after a punishing season.

As each one has battled for supremacy, it is only natural that they go one step further than their predecessors. But in bringing about the new, increasingly physical, game they have paved the way for their own downfall. As they get older and the challengers get younger, it is only going to get harder for them to keep up.

British Tennis still needs more drive

We’re lucky to have new facilities – now we need the drive to get people playing on them

Over 17 million people watched Andy Murray break the 77 year Wimbledon deadlock in 2013. The BBC subsequently provided its most expansive coverage to date in 2014, with over 150 hours of TV time dedicated to the Championships.

And yet this gives the Lawn Tennis Association even more reason to be scratching their heads. Why is it that only 406,000 of those that watched Murray romp to victory pick up a racket and play tennis at least once a week?

Perhaps more importantly, why is this figure in decline?

Interest in the sport has hit a peak and we need to act fast to harness the power of youngsters’ imaginations. We have the interest; we now need to facilitate potential player’s desires because they won’t wait around. Football, cricket, golf, even cycling are providing a greater impetus for participation.

Although far from an expert, I did manage to establish a club and coaching programme on public courts in 2010. The support of the local authority and public figures was very encouraging. The only thing that was lacking was a cohesive regional plan.

Every tennis club, school, sports facility could benefit from collaboration. We – as a small coaching group – could work with the school to provide tennis as an alternative to the traditional football and cricket combination which still dominates most PE teacher’s curriculums.

From there, we could feed into the local tennis centre, with a larger coaching infrastructure and – if you’re lucky – indoor courts. We’ve had several children go onto play at the local centre, but it was on their own initiative.

Owen Gibson wrote for The Guardian that ‘it won’t be changing one thing that transforms tennis in this country but marginal gains across a multitude of areas’. This seems to me to hit the nail on the head.

Pushing players in a consistent direction, making coaching accessible with lower prices and making tennis ‘ordinary’ is all part of the solution. We need to give our juniors tennis on a plate for them to choose us over football.