DCSIMG

The next Andy Murray?

LEON Smith parted company with Andrew Murray two summers ago, and since then he has "been chasing the dream of any tennis coach, and trying to find another one just like him".

He wouldn't tell the boy this - "I don't want him to get too big-headed too quickly" - but the search may be over. Jonny O'Mara could just be the next blessed one, and there won't be any dissent on this view from the extravagantly-gifted youngster from Arbroath.

"I want to be No1," he declares without a blink.

No1 in Britain? "No1 in the world!"

Jonny O'Mara is ten years old, and it goes without saying that such breathtaking self-belief is unusual for one so young, but that's the Murray Effect for you.

The Dunblane teenager's feats over the past six months - Wimbledon, the US Open and a first ATP final against current world No1 Roger Federer in Thailand - have fed the ambitions of every young prospect in Scotland. Murray has turned the implausible into the possible.

"I want to be just like Andy," Jonny proclaims by way of emphasis. "He has got Scottish grit, and I know that because I have played with him. On court he's a bit feisty, but off court he is great. Nothing is going to stop me. I am not a loser at all."

O'Mara is rated No2 in Britain in his age group behind Luke Bambridge of Nottingham, which makes him one of Scotland's top junior prospects. It is part of Leon Smith's brief to ensure, as he did with Murray at a similar age, that this talent is nourished and allowed to flourish: you can already put O'Mara's double-handed backhand up there with Michelle Wie's golf swing as a thing of startling power and beauty.

Smith's work with Murray and the former Jordanhill prodigy, Nicola Allen, has provided him with the best possible template. Smith is 29 and from the south side of Glasgow, and his coaching career began at the age of 17, first with clubs in the west of Scotland and then at Stirling University, before Murray's mother, Judy, approached him to do some work with her precocious 11-year-old.

"Judy was trying to identify the country's top talent, and Andy obviously and Nicola were those. It began with individual lessons, and the two of us got on really well. Andy is one of those gifted individuals that come along every so often.

"He has good genes, and enthusiasm. I remember when I was playing as a junior he would be there watching, and he was only three years old at the time. More importantly, on and off the court, even as an 11-year-old he was very competitive whether it was playing cards, board games or table- tennis."

Smith also learned a valuable lesson in the case of Allen, who was certainly as gifted as Murray, but who dropped out to pursue her studies.

"Nicola moved down south, became ill, and although she still plays tennis, she took the academic route and studies medicine now. She won under-12, under-13, under-14 and under-15 British national titles, but then moved to London to work with the LTA full-time squad.

"Unfortunately, it didn't work out. Nicola could have gone a long way in the women's game. You are always going to get drop-outs, and now I know you have to create an environment where it's cool to be at a tennis club, where it's enjoyable to be at a tennis club.

"It can be a very lonely sport, and academies like those in Florida are much better. The kids are all training together under one roof, and it is a social environment. We have to try and do that in Scotland."

Viewed purely as a marketing tool, the rise of Murray could not have been more opportune for Scottish coaches, such as Smith.

"Lots of coaches have remarked on the increase in numbers since Andy's success. A lot more kids are trying to copy his competitive nature on the court. Andy walking with his iPod playing Black Eyed Peas is something that wasn't there before. Also the fact that he's younger and coached by a Scottish person.

"People will think: 'Hold on, we can do this. This guy trained in Stirling, which is a normal venue, until he was 15 or 16 years old. We can do the same thing.'

"People believe they can make it happen. I have been to the Gorbals centre in Glasgow several times recently, and there is definitely a different class playing there. There are kids in there with the Rangers and Celtic tops on playing tennis. It is a really positive thing, a totally new market. A lot of that is down to Andy."

Murray and Smith agreed on an amicable split when the player was 17, former Davis Cup player Mark Petchey taking on the role of minder, confidant, video games opponent and technical guru.

Smith recalls: "I had been with him since he was 11, and was on his first major trip when he won the under-12 Orange Bowl tournament in Miami, which is the unofficial top junior competition in the world. From there we just started travelling to every European event together with ten weeks away a year, and that just grew and grew.

"I was his minder basically. I looked after him, and we were just lucky that Tennis Scotland and LTA helped fund that. He was such a talent they had to make sure he got that chance.

"When he was 16 he went to Barcelona, and I would do blocks of time with him, but I was not there full-time. When we did decide to go full-time, unfortunately he got his knee injury, and the next seven months were very difficult. I would pick him up every single day, go to the gym at Stirling, then go and play snooker at Bridge of Allan, and then do some swimming. It was a difficult time and then, two summers ago, we decided we would go our separate ways.

"It's a long time, six or seven years, in any coach/player relationship. Another factor was that I hadn't played at international level, and at that time in his career I thought it was important that he had someone who had performed at the very top level. So in came Petchey."

The Scots have remained on the best of terms. "We are still very good friends, and I am in touch every week. I was in the players' box at Wimbledon, and went to see him at the US Open this year sitting beside Mark Petchey, which was a bit funny watching him when you are no longer his coach. I still get extremely nervous for him, and still get passionate for him.

"I am friendly with Mark, and we have a good relationship. Mark is good for him. He has a good sense of humour and he is younger, and I think that's important for a teenager like Andy. Now I travel Scotland to coach and to try and identify the next Andrew Murray, because that is the dream of every coach. Jonny, I would say, is a priority for Scottish tennis."

Like every coach, Smith has his way of going about business. "Leon is a lot of fun at times," young O'Mara confirms, "but he can also be a bit nasty. He is never happy with anything."

Smith does not disagree: "I thought he might say that. I am quite hard on him, but there again I was quite hard on Andy."

 
 
 

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