Danny Sapsford finished his playing career on the biggest stage of all but is now on a one-man mission to boost grass-roots tennis in Britain.
The former Great Britain Davis Cup player hung up his racket in anger in June 1999 after losing to Pete Sampras in the third round of Wimbledon. Sapsford then took the usual route into coaching and media work but five years ago changed tack when he set up the charity Bright Ideas for Tennis.
Hedge fund manager Stuart Rhodes, once a top junior player, provides the financial backing while Sapsford does pretty much everything else.
The 48-year-old ropes in fellow former Davis Cup players for charity days around the country, stages events to help clubs raise money for improvement projects and has recently launched ‘I Play 30’, which sets up disability coaching in clubs.
Earlier this month Sapsford and recently-retired Fed Cup player Jocelyn Rae played a 24-hour tennis marathon at the National Tennis Centre to help 12 clubs raise funds. Joined together with proceeds from a charity auction, the tally currently stands at nearly £50,000.
Sapsford does not want to be too publicly critical of the Lawn Tennis Association but there is clearly frustration that he does not see the work he is doing by himself echoed or supported by the governing body.
“It’s hard work, for one person it’s not easy,” he said. “I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed at the moment I must admit because I’ve got so many projects going on.
“I like being busy but I do think it can be replicated. When you look at the money it’s costing us to run our charity, it’s probably a drop in the ocean of what the LTA spend on a lot of their stuff.”
Under recently-departed chief executive Michael Downey the LTA turned its focus to the grass-roots amid falling participation figures, launching programmes such as Tennis for Kids, providing free coaching and rackets, and the Great British Tennis Weekends.
The LTA claimed 131,000 more people played tennis in June 2017 than in June of the previous year, but the last figures from Sport England’s Active People survey showed 398,100 adults played tennis at least once a week from October 2015-16 compared to 457,200 for the first survey 10 years earlier.
The latest new era for the LTA began when Scott Lloyd replaced Downey at the start of the year, and he took part in Sapsford and Rae’s tennis marathon.
“I don’t really know Scott,” said Sapsford. “I met him for the first time when I’d been awake for about 40 hours. I sent him a message thanking him for coming along and saying if ever we can get together and do stuff then I’d love to do it.
“He seemed very complimentary about what we’re doing but who knows. I’m not reliant upon the LTA to help now.”
The LTA will shortly roll out its long-awaited new high performance structure but Sapsford, like many others within the sport, firmly believes the health of tennis in Britain at the bottom is reflected at the top.
He said: “The major problem I think with British grass-roots tennis at the moment is there seems to be a detachment between the clubs and the governing body.
“It does seem quite sad that over the last 20 years we’ve had Henman, Rusedski and now we’ve got Murray, you’d have thought during that 20-year period that (tennis in Britain) potentially should have been healthier than it is. You hear the horror stories of people having to cancel tournaments because you haven’t got enough entries and that is sad.
“Unfortunately most of the enthusiastic volunteers are in their 60s or 70s so when they’ve had enough, I’m not sure if anyone’s going to step into their shoes. I do think the clubs have to be a little bit more innovative in what they do and a little bit more open-minded to try to attract more members. You’ve got to make it as accessible and easy as possible.
“The LTA always talk about systems but the system doesn’t produce players, the volume of people at the bottom of the pyramid produces the players.”
– To donate to the Bright Ideas for Tennis tennis marathon visit:https://mydonate.bt.com/events/fvtennismarathon2018/450759