Clifton's tennis love match lingers on despite past agony

THE good news about the last Scot to play Davis Cup tennis is that, at 60, John Clifton is still contributing heavily to racquet sports.

The bad news is that he hasn't yet managed to put fully behind him the disappointment of going down in front of a home Edinburgh crowd to Peter Pokorny and Hans Kary when Austria visited Craiglockhart in May, 1970.

He said: "I turned up willing and eager to play and having been selected on the basis of my best year but it didn't work out the way I wanted."

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The occasion certainly turned out to be bittersweet, given the enormous sense of anticipation in Capital tennis circles at having a lad from St Bernard's Crescent spearhead the British bid.

But, while 36 years have passed, those of us who attended the European Zone A first round match still remember just how much conditions utterly conspired against Clifton.

He said: "I remember mustering at Craiglockhart the preceding weekend and so hot was it for the next few days that the old shale courts had to be regularly watered. I was upbeat because I knew those courts better than anybody apart from Tloc [former teaching pro and Wimbledon quarter-finalist Ignacy Tloczynski] and had come off the back of some good results.

"These included going to Germany for the King's Cup and beating [local hero] Wilhelm Bungert who, a couple of years earlier, had reached a Wimbledon singles final.

"Also, I'd won the German Indoor title beating some of the best in Europe including (British stalwart) Mark Cox.But these results were on fast surfaces."

In other words Clifton would have been in clover but for freak weather 24 hours before the off.

He rightly recalls: "On the Thursday all of a sudden the heavens opened and Austria had players used to softer clay."

And the rest, as they say, is history except that Scotland has again produced a Davis Cup competitor on home soil.

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Andy Murray lines up for the GB team this weekend against Serbia and Montenegro at the Braehead Arenaand Clifton could not be more delighted.

Clifton may have been born in Yorkshire, where he currently lives, but it is absolutely appropriate Scotland claims him as its own.

Apart from a string of Scottish titles, Clifton was educated at Daniel Stewart's College and learned the game initially at Dean TC before moving on the now defunct Westhall club which was located at Gray's Loan just off Colinton Road.

Perhaps the biggest giveaway to his roots, however, comes when he says: "I don't get up to Edinburgh so much since my sister moved south but I'm still hurting from that Hibs defeat on Sunday.

"I may have played a lot of my early tennis at Westhall, where you could hear the roars from Tynecastle, but, as a Comely Bank lad, I was brought up a Hibee and it pained me to see the team lose the Scottish Cup semi."

So that's another thing he has in common with Murray, whom he predicts can help Scotland spark a major revolution in British tennis.

And Clifton's own involvement includes having played a major role in coaching Britain's hottest prospects, sisters Jennifer and Jessica Ren, aged 12 and 11 respectively, who are tipped to go all the way to the top.

And, clearly, in those prodigies Clifton finds many of the qualities he so admires in Murray. He said: "I think Scots have an advantage nowadays in that to succeed they have to be fighters in comparison to youngsters in the south of England who often have things laid on a plate for them.

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"Look at the facilities being developed and you find not only are all the major junior tournaments on the south coast but the new LTA training base - and good luck to them - is at Roehampton, which doesn't make it easier for the Scots.

"But these days techniques are all so finely honed that what it comes down to is attitude and determination.

"A year ago Andy Murray hadn't even made the tournament circuit full-time. Now he has beaten world-ranking stars like Lleyton Hewitt and Andy Roddick but, that apart, for someone to handle himself as well as he does at 18 years old - all those interviews - is fantastic."

But if the role model is in place Clifton is adamant tennis has no room for complacency.

"It troubles me that both Murray and Tim Henman have come out of tennis dynasties, if you like. Where is the youngster with no family background in tennis going to come from?"

Making it clear that is a priority Clifton says clubs must receive more encouragement.

He added: "Every country has to have its sporting benchmarks and, in European tennis, that is the club scene.

"By comparison our system is absolutely pathetic. We don't cater at clubs for what members want, whether it is hobby players, juniors or whatever. Too often juniors find themselves restricted to certain hours at private clubs and club leagues seem to be based purely on doubles rather than singles.

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"And what about the public parks courts which, in too many places, have succumbed to under-funding by the local authority and vandalism?"

At the same time the open-minded Clifton admits that a lifetime's close involvement can leave the individual prone to "scepticism" and what comes through above all is the passion that still burns fiercely for a sport that propelled him on to the international circuit. It is a passion that Scottish tennis could do far worse than tap into. Surely 36 years between Davis Cup Scots is too long to wait?

Meanwhile, as well as Andy Murray, make a note of the names Jennifer and Jessica Ren, up and comings both, with more than a hint of "Made in Scotland" attached to their development.