Surrey's Roger Draper on the future of British tennis
PUBLISHED: 20:18 17 February 2011 | UPDATED: 20:22 25 June 2014
As the chief executive of the Lawn Tennis Association, Surrey's Roger Draper has a pretty big challenge on his hands. His mission: to deliver us a Wimbledon champion. Tracy Cook went to meet him
Originally published in Surrey Life magazine July 2008
Photos courtesy of the LTA
From the moment you walk into the National Tennis Centre, at its huge leafy site in Roehampton, you know you are at the very heart of British tennis. As I sit in the airy, light reception, with 24 courts spread out around me, I can hear the buzz from the canteen and picture Andy Murray or Alex Bogdanovic eating their lunch just yards away. Moments later, I am rewarded with the sight of Carl Maes, the former coach of Kim Clijsters and now the head of women's tennis, who walks past with a friendly nod in my direction.
As the new headquarters of the Lawn Tennis Association (LTA), this is the very nerve centre of British tennis, where the best players in the country train - and the man behind it all is Surrey's very own Roger Draper, chief executive of the LTA. Brought in two years ago, he pretty much runs the game in this country and is intent on turning things around.
A dynamo of energy
As he walks me down to his large bright office, with floor to ceiling windows overlooking the courts, his relaxed manner belies a dynamo of energy and ambition.
"We want to be winners; we want to win Wimbledon and grand slams and we want players in the top one hundred," says the 38-year-old. "But the other side of my role is to make it one of the biggest participative sports in the country. I want to make tennis the number two sport after football."
His eyes shine as he speaks, fired up with his vision. On a court outside, a group of schoolchildren are being coached as part of a community initiative.
As we chat, he wolfs down a lunch of tuna sandwiches. It's one of his busiest times of the year, just before the start of the five-week British grass court season and, of course, Wimbledon, which he runs jointly with the All England Tennis Club.
"Every day, I could be dealing with players like Roger Federer, the media or key sponsors - there's always something going on," he says. "By the time it's 2am on the last Sunday championship dinner at Wimbledon, I can feel pretty frazzled. But I enjoy what I'm doing and feel highly privileged to be doing it."
A former Surrey tennis captain
Before he turned to the business of running British tennis, Draper was an international sportsman himself, playing rugby league and tennis. He was part of the Surrey county cup-winning team in 1996 and captained Surrey until 2002. He has lived in the county for more than ten years and now resides in Oxshott with his wife Nicky, a former British junior tennis champion who coaches at Parkside School in Cobham, and their sons, Ben, nine, and Jack, six.
"We've really put down roots here now," he says. "I can easily access the tennis centre, Wimbledon and London up the A3, but we're far enough out to enjoy the country. There are some great tennis schemes going on in Surrey: there's our Surrey county office based at St George's in Weybridge and a big part of their job is to work with coaches, clubs and the local authority to make sure there are proper tennis programmes in place.
"Sport in Surrey is really booming - you've got the Surrey county cricket, the Chelsea football academy and lots of private clubs. I go to Sutton's tennis and squash club - there's lots going on. And it's great to go and stand by a court on a Saturday morning and cheer Ben on or watch Jack in an Oxshott Royals' match - it keeps my feet on the ground."
But for now his mission is to sort out British tennis. He has made big and controversial changes. Two years ago, he rolled out the 'Blueprint for Tennis' - a ten-year plan to restructure training, coaching and spotting talent. He has assembled an impressive team of coaches too - including Paul Annacone (former coach to Pete Sampras and Tim Henman) - and has wooed Greg Rusedski as talent ambassador and John Lloyd as Davis Cup captain.
A definite advantage
The move to the state-of-the-art National Tennis Centre last year has given the game real focus too. It boasts 24 courts (six indoor acrylic, six outdoor acrylic, six clay, four grass and two mini tennis), a gym, outdoor sprint track, hydrotherapy pool and a sports science department. But it's not just about supporting the pros - Draper is keen to get to the grass roots and has set up 19 High Performance Centres around the country, to identify young players early. He wants to encourage more children to play tennis competitively, "so the warriors can shine through," and has encouraged 'mini tennis' so they can start as young as four. "By 2012, we want every kid in primary school to have picked up a tennis racket," he says passionately.
Keen to get everyone in on the act, he also wants more of us ordinary mortals to play tennis too. "We did a survey recently that found 90 per cent of us have a racket at the back of the cupboard, but only 10 per cent actually use it," he says. "We have 10,000 parks with courts in this country - a court within a bus ride for everybody!" No excuses there then.
He has impeccable credentials for the job: as chief executive of Sports England he carried out a £500 million review of British sport and worked on the Olympic bid and Commonwealth games campaign. He feels his plan is already coming good.
"Of the next generation, we have Andy Murray, already ranked number 11 in the world. He is definitely a grand slam champion in the making. And we now have five girls climbing through the top 200, including Katie O'Brien, Anne Keothavong and Surrey's own Mel South. And in the juniors, there are nine boys coming through with world rankings."
But with Wimbledon the main tennis focus for the British public, Draper knows that British tennis has just a two-week window to prove itself to the public. Will Andy Murray win this year? Draper is cautious.
"Whether it's this year or 2009, or 10, remains to be seen," he says. "He's only 21 and he's still got a long way to go. The big threats are clearly Federer, Nadal and Djokovic. Of the new generation, there's Richard Gasquet and Thomas Berdych and another one to watch is Jo-Wilfred Tsonga who got to the final of the Australian Open. He's an explosive player." He pauses. "But for us, now it's just a matter of time."
His goals are inspiring, his plans motivational. I leave his office vowing to dig my racket out of the cupboard and feeling confident that British tennis is in the best hands. If anyone can deliver us a Wimbledon champion, it is Roger Draper.
10 places to take up tennis in Surrey
The LTA has clubs all over Surrey but here are a few suggestions to get you started:
Byfleet Lawn Tennis Club, Pyrford Road, Pyrford, Woking
Tel: 01932 346924
AD Tennis (Reeds), Reeds School, Sandy Lane, Cobham
Tel: 01932 588016
Dorking Lawn Tennis and Squash Club, Roman Road, Dorking
Tel: 01483 202489
Mole Valley Mini Tennis Club, Howard of Effingham Sports Centre, Lower Road, Effingham
Tel: 01372 453684
Epsom LTC, Woodcote Road, Epsom
Tel: 01372 723679
Tennis Together Centre, Rodborough School, Petworth Road, Milford
Tel: 01483 417592
Pit Farm (Guildford) LTA, Hillier Road, Guildford
Tel: 01483 562148
Reigate LTC, 17 Manor Road, Reigate,
Tel: 01737 242652
Surrey County Indoor Tennis Centre, St George's College, Weybridge Road, Addlestone
Tel: 01932 839333
David Lloyd Club Woking, Westfield Ave, Old Woking. GU22 9PF
Tel: 01483 722113
- For more information on tennis in your area, contact the LTA (Tel: 020 8487 7000 / www.LTA.org.uk)