Multi-tasking coach eyes bright future after superb year for British tennis
Leon Smith, who combines his role as head of British men’s tennis with that of Davis Cup captain while also fronting up the women’s game, has previously worked as Andy Murray’s coach during the Scot’s early career, as well as now being able to call on the services of the reigning US Open champion for Davis Cup matches.
The biggest name in British tennis right now, by far, is Andy Murray. But the most important person in the sport may well be his first coach.
Murray has inspired thousands to take up tennis. Leon Smith’s task – or at least, one of the many on his plate – is to harness the immense enthusiasm generated by his fellow-Scot, and ensure that British tennis as a whole makes enduring progress.
Until recently, that was widely viewed as a thankless task. The sparse successes by British players, male or female, were often thought of as being achieved despite, not because of, the Lawn Tennis Association.
But thanks in large part to Smith, the governing body is a different beast these days. Less set in its ways, more open to new ideas. More inclusive, less prescriptive. And, above all, more supportive of the players.
The 36-year-old from Glasgow is a diplomat by nature, and never the type to try to assert himself unnecessarily. Nonetheless, it is becoming increasingly clear that the virtues which the LTA is beginning to show are ones which come from Smith’s own personality.
He has been a coach for half his life, but is also so much more than that these days. The head of men’s tennis and Davis Cup captain since the spring of 2010, he has also been head of women’s tennis for the past 14 months.
The Davis Cup job is very hands-on in terms of involvement with the players, but the job as a whole amounts to performance director. And this year, some of the performances have been outstanding.
There has been Murray, of course, who bounced back from defeat in the Wimbledon final to win the Olympic tournament on the same court just four weeks later – then went on from that to win his maiden major in New York. Jonathan Marray enjoyed a remarkable and unexpected triumph in the Wimbledon doubles, while on the women’s side there has been a changing of the guard, with Heather Watson and Laura Robson taking over as Great Britain’s top two from Elena Baltacha and Anne Keothavong.
All of which would allow Smith to look back on 2012 with some satisfaction. But, while undeniably pleased with the progress made over the past 12 months, he placed as much emphasis, as he reviewed the year this week, on the work that still has to be done.
Inevitably, though, pride of place in his assessment had to go to Murray, who won a Grand Slam final at the fifth time of asking. “Obviously there have been some significant results over the year,” Smith began. “He had hoped to have some success at a home Olympics, and winning the men’s singles was a big step forward for Andy.
“The authority he showed in winning the tournament, not only in the final against Roger Federer but also in the semi against Novak Djokovic, was superb. And then of course he went on from there to win the US Open.
“The strength in depth in doubles was good to see as well. Jonny Marray’s Wimbledon victory with Freddie Nielsen may have looked like it came out of left field, but there had been hints for some time that he was on the verge of making a breakthrough. Then there was the consistency of Ross Hutchins and Colin Fleming, who finished just outside the tour finals.
“And what an amazing year it’s been for Heather Watson and Laura Robson. Both finished the year very strongly, and look like they’re going to be serious contenders at senior level.
“Success as a junior is no guarantee that you’ll go on to have a top senior career, but it is a good indication. And if you look at the results they’ve had against top-ten players, that’s another very encouraging sign.”
Baltacha and Keothavong have alternated between Nos 1 and 2 in Britain for much of the past decade, but, both now 29, have been decisively overtaken by their younger compatriots. Watson, still only 20, is No 49 in the world rankings, four places above Robson, who does not turn 19 until January.
Keothavong is still inside the top 150, but only a dozen places ahead of Johanna Konta, the Australian-born 21-year-old who became a British citizen in May. Baltacha has continued to hint that her retirement is imminent, but for the time being she is ranked at 176, meaning Britain has five women inside the top 200 – an immense improvement on recent years.
“Heather and Laura have both had Anne and Bally to look up to, and their work ethic is extremely high,” Smith continued. “They’re very driven individuals who have invested huge amounts of energy and time in assembling a strong team around them.
“They’ve got different weapons as players, but they’re both capable of moving on to the next level of women’s tennis. And the really exciting thing is they’ve got so many good years ahead of them.
“Johanna had a good year as well, especially towards the end of the year when she got through qualifying at the US Open then reached the second round. And although she lost in the first round at Wimbledon she only lost 10-8 in the decider to Christina McHale, who was seeded.”
Murray, of course, went six rounds further at the All-England Club, only to suffer the crushing disappointment of defeat by Roger Federer in the final. After two defeats in the Australian Open final and one in the US Open, that loss led to a growing chorus of suggestions that, at 25, Murray was fated never to win a Grand Slam.
But, after that Olmypic victory, he proved the doubters wrong at Flushing Meadows in September – and proved Smith right.
“I was always confident he would win one,” Smith said. “He’s always shown signs that he could beat the best players around, and he’s always kept improving and kept on challenging himself. So I had no doubt that he could win one.
“I worked with him directly when he was 11 until he was 17, and even then you could see his absolute determination to win every point. His tactical nous was always so good too. And athletically and physically he’s worked really hard and developed himself a lot over the past five years.”
It is commonly held that the first Grand Slam title is the hardest to win. Smith tends to agree with that, but warned that, with no significant shift in the balance of power at the top of the men’s game likely to take place any time soon, Murray will still have to fight every inch of the way if he is to add to his tally.
“Novak Djokovic has finished the year as the best in the world, but there’s no sign that Roger Federer is going away any time soon. He’s still in supreme physical shape. Rafael Nadal is injured just now, but he’s come back before and I think he’ll still be a force to be reckoned with. So I don’t see the top four in the world changing any time soon.
“Having said that, there is increased pressure from immediately below them. David Ferrer is 30 but has just had the best year of his career, and Tomas Berdych is always dangerous too.
“So Andy knows he’ll have to keep working very hard if he is to win another one. But he’s put himself in a great position with his Olympic gold medal and his US Open win.”
It should not be forgotten that, immediately after beating Federer to win that gold, Murray was back on court with Robson in the mixed doubles final. They lost to Max Mirnyi and Victoria Azarenka of Belarus, but the silver medal was still another tangible token of the progress being made in British tennis.
“It’s not just Andy,” Smith put it. “We’ve seen that huge breakthrough from Laura and Heather, and Jonny Marray at Wimbledon. But there’s a lot of hard work to get done, and there’s no denying we’re not where we want to be on the men’s side.
“Getting there is partly down to us, in making sure the players have the right kind of support, but it’s also up to the players themselves. They’re working hard to get there, and I’m confident that people like Jamie Baker can make it into the top 200. And there’s also a group of boys such as Oliver Golding who are also on the way up, so that’s very positive.
“There’s no doubt it’s a long journey to get to the top in tennis, but those boys are working very hard to get there. They’ve got big serves, big forehands and good physicality.”
With two heads and a captaincy in his unwieldy job title, it is little wonder that Smith sees delegation as one of the keys to success. He is working, in the main, with older, more experienced coaches, and is happy to learn from them all.
“It’s a great team we’ve got here, and everyone is very clear on their roles within the team. Judy Murray has come in and the Fed Cup team has made tremendous progress, and you’ve seen the great team spirit that they have and that our Davis Cup team has as well. It’s vital we keep building on that.
“There’s lots of areas of my own development to improve on. There’s no stopping. I’m still young, but I’ve already been on quite a long journey myself, and since working at the National Tennis Centre I’ve been fortunate enough to work closely with some very highly regarded coaches.
“So it’s important to keep learning, but you still need to have a philosophy and a way of learning, and we’ve got that in the team here.
“We’ve got an open, flexible system with good communication and understanding. But we know there’s a lot of hard work to be done, especially on the men’s side if we’re going to get some players up closer to Andy.”
After working with juniors during the infancy of his own career as a coach, Smith is now focused firmly on the elite end of the sport. But he is still acutely aware of the need to keep introducing new generations to tennis, knowing that the greater the number playing at a basic level, the more chance Great Britain will have of producing another Andy Murray.
Which is why, when asked what his principal message to the public would be, he did not make a plea for more spectators to turn up to tournaments, but instead urged greater participation. “It’s a game for life,” he said. “We’ve got Aegon putting money, equipment and expertise into schools tennis, and it’s so easy to join a club now. So pick up a racket.”
• Life and pensions company Aegon, Lead Partner of British Tennis, is supporting the game at all levels, from grass-roots programmes to development of Britain’s top players and backing world-class tournaments. For more information on Aegon please visit www.aegontennis.co.uk.
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