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Tennis: LTA told to cash in on Murray effect or face funding cuts

Britain's Andy Murray hits a return to Switzerland's Roger Federer during their men's singles semi-final tennis match at the ATP World Tour
Britain's Andy Murray hits a return to Switzerland's Roger Federer during their men's singles semi-final tennis match at the ATP World Tour

By Martyn Herman

LONDON (Reuters) - If they hoped Andy Murray would have a Pied Piper effect after emerging as a grand slam champion, those who run British tennis have been sorely disappointed after figures revealed the country's crumbling public courts are standing empty.

While world number three Murray's magnificent year and the rise of two young women into the top 50 has put a healthy gloss on 2012, the Lawn Tennis Association (LTA), so often hounded for a perceived failure to grow the sport, is under fire again.

Sport England, the government body which distributes money to grassroots sport, announced this week that the LTA was in danger of having its funding drastically reduced unless participation levels begin to rise.

"They need a stronger plan, they need the right skills to deliver it and they need to have feedback so they know what is working and change it fast if it's not working," Sport England's chief executive Jennie Price said after announcing the winners and losers in its 493 million pounds handouts.

The LTA, which also enjoys a considerable windfall from Wimbledon profits, received 24.5 million pounds from Sport England for the period 2009-13 but over the next four years the amount available to tennis will fall to 17.4 million pounds.

Of that figure 10.3 million pounds is being ring-fenced and will only be released if the LTA shows it can capitalize on Murray's U.S. Open and Olympic triumphs by enticing the country's youth to pick up a tennis racket during 2013.

Sport England figures said that the total number of people playing tennis for 30 minutes each week had dropped 10 percent since 2008 despite the millions at the disposal of the LTA through Wimbledon profits and government funding.

While acknowledging the LTA's successes over the past year, Sport England said it had to prove it was doing enough to continue growing the numbers swinging a racket.

"The LTA has taken a while to grasp that is a different market place now and you have to build participation despite so much competition out there.

"You can't just shout, 'I am tennis, here's my product', the sport has to start instead understanding what their customer wants. It has taken the LTA some time to understand this."

"For the first time we have created a specific fund to reward success by (National Governing Bodies) who prove they can grow their sports. This is about backing winners," she added.

Murray's success over the past five years has masked a lack of depth among British men with the next best ranked player being Jamie Baker down at 246.

France have 10 players inside the top 100.

Even Murray's rise is often used as a stick to beat the LTA as the Scot packed his bags for Spain as a teenager in order to maximize his talent rather than continue with a British system mired in mediocrity.

Thanks to the rise of Heather Watson and Laura Robson, the women's outlook is brighter although a common thread at many junior tournaments around the country is a noticeable lack of young girls competing.

The LTA said it would continue pushing the sport at grassroots and elite level.

"17.4m is a substantial potential award for British tennis, and we are working closely with Sport England to ensure that we develop the best tennis offers to increase participation, whilst continuing to deliver a leading talent program," Simon Long, the LTA's chief commercial officer, said in statement.

(Reporting by Martyn Herman; editing by Amlan Chakraborty)

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