In the latest installment of “Down The T”, where we talk to people in and around the sport, Tennis Frontier’s Owen Gigg catches up with Ben Saunders, a former coach of Andy Murray during the Wimbledon champion’s formative junior years.
Ben – you were a member of the team coaching Andy Murray during his early junior days in Scotland – how did you first get involved?
I was coached by Judy Murray as a junior national player and then she got me involved with some of the younger players, hitting with them to help them improve.
When I realised I wasn’t going to be the next Tim Henman I started taking my coaching badges and quickly got involved with some good programmes and juniors, working with Scottish National Squads alongside Leon Smith.
A couple of years after starting to coach I was back working with Judy after she offered me a job at a Next Generation Club in Edinburgh.
How old were Andy and Jamie at that point, and even at that point, did it occur to you their level of potential and how far they might go?
They were around ten and twelve years old and they were playing a lot of tennis, as well as other sports. I didn’t think of them as being international sports stars at that stage but I remember Leon asking me if I thought Andy could be top 10 in the world one day.
We had a long discussion about it but I’m not sure either of us really believed they’d both win Wimbledon titles!
How strong was the sibling rivalry between the two, and the competition within the camp in general?
Competition was healthy between the top juniors but there wasn’t really the depth. This is still the case in the UK compared to Spain and places like that.
Brotherly rivalry was high as is the case with most brothers. I think Jamie as the older brother liked to wind up Andy sometimes but it was Andy who eventually got the upper hand on court!
Andy went to Spain to continue his junior development – did you think that was an essential part of his development or do you think the UK has everything a player needs to further his development with a view to turning pro?
Britain has some top juniors coming through now who are training in the UK, so it is possible. However, I think Andy made the right decision for him at the time. As Andy’s success continues so will the growth and opportunities for players in the UK.
As a junior number one in Scotland yourself, what factors prevented you taking it even further? Tell us a little about your own junior career…
I played tennis most days of the week and did fitness training when I could, but not to the level that the next generation of juniors did like Andy or Colin Flemming. They had sessions every day taken by our coaching team and dedicated fitness coaches. For me my best opportunities came as a coach, travelling the world with Scottish teams.
My biggest leap as a player came when I joined Stirling University’s tennis squad for two years. Playing, coupled with fitness training each day. In reality I would have needed to have been doing that since the age of ten to have improved my chances of going further.
Are you still in contact with Andy, Jamie and Judy?
I’ve had tweets from Jamie and am in fairly regular contact with Judy as she continues to mentor me in my current role. The last time I spoke with Andy was at Wimbledon a few years ago…he’s a busy guy!
What’s your take on Andy’s progress with Ivan Lendl as head coach? Was this the final ingredient that took him over the line in winning a major?
I think Ivan has been a great addition to Team Murray. He’s definitely added to Andy’s progress and probably was the final ingredient in winning majors.
You must have felt huge satisfaction seeing Jamie win the Wimbledon Mixed Doubles, and then Andy winning the US Open and Wimbledon. Can you describe the feeling personally and what knock-on effect do you think it has for British tennis?
I was very proud of Jamie and Andy winning their Grand Slams. I’ve followed them for years and always knew they would eventually make the breakthrough.
However, I knew Andy wouldn’t get the credit he deserved until he won Wimbledon! Now he’s done that, I hope he kicks on to win more and this will undoubtedly have a massive effect on British tennis.
I also hope the Lawn Tennis Association (LTA) keep pushing to get grassroots tennis more and more accessible for all.
From a coaching perspective, which players and particular shots would you refer to as textbook tennis for young players?
Federer is still one of my favorites for teaching kids about technique and footwork.
The kids still love Rafa, Novak and Andy too though.
It’s a golden generation of tennis to watch and enjoy!
I know you are now working in Liverpool (a city synonymous with football in the UK). How have you found it promoting tennis and what programmes are you pushing in this soccer-mad environment?
It’s been particularly interesting as everywhere else I’ve been hasn’t had the same level of sporting distractions.
My goal has always to make tennis the strong No. 2 sport choice in this area and promoting tennis and sports in general. A lot of what my team teaches improves sporty ABCs and will help kids in whatever sports they play in the future.
As well as continuing to work hard with my social and competitive players on our programme at Campion Tennis Club (North Liverpool), we have recently launched a ‘Tennis for Free‘ initiative in partnership with our own Ben Saunders Tennis Academy, the charity and Sefton Council.
It was the biggest launch seen by Tennis for Free in ten years of free Park Tennis programmes, and I’m excited about getting even more people playing in 2014!
Ben, Thank you taking the time out to talk to the Tennis Frontier, it’s been a pleasure, and we wish you all the best for 2014.