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Lively analysis of tennis from writer’s closeness to the stars

by Iain Morris

The Observer

When a crestfallen Andy Murray gave a choked-up television interview immediately after losing last year’s Wimbledon final to Roger Federer, few would have predicted that joy would quickly replace disappointment for the shy Scot from Dunblane. Four weeks later he was back defeating the Swiss ace on the same court to claim Olympic gold, and in September he became the first Brit in 76 years to triumph at a major, beating Serbia’s Novak Djokovic at the U.S. Open. For Murray’s newfound supporters, won over by his public display of emotion in SW19, tennis had suddenly expanded its horizons irrevocably.

COURT CONFIDENTIAL: Inside the World of Tennis, by Neil Harman. The Robson Press, 2013, 400 pp., £20 (hardcover)

It seemed an opportune time for a book about the professional game, thought Neil Harman, a sports correspondent for the Times and respected authority on the ins and outs of tennis (both on the court and off it). Published in the run-up to this year’s Wimbledon, his account traverses the season that saw Murray shine, starting in Australia in January and finishing up at London’s O2 arena, for the men’s tour finals, in November.

As the title hints, what makes this book special are the disclosures to which Harman is often privy thanks to his cordial relationships with so many of the sport’s prominent figures. Not averse to sneaking into competitor-restricted areas in search of a headline, Harman is clearly on friendly terms with most players and coaches — as well as various officials — and seems especially close to some of the more recognizable faces. At one stage, he even worked as a media mentor to Victoria Azarenka, perhaps better known for her on-court grunting than her appearance off it.

Taking full advantage of his status, and forever diligent and enthusiastic, Harman delves into the big issues of the day as he scurries from match to press conference to victory parade in Dunblane, remarking on how his own reporting role has altered over the years. Unsurprisingly, a good chunk of the narrative is dedicated to Murray’s summertime successes, but the most illuminating passages are probably those about the sport’s internal politics — the difficulty of executing reforms to popularize tennis, for instance, when vested interests seem opposed to any kind of change.

The subject of player remuneration receives a good deal of attention from Harman’s pen, and the revelations may startle those used to thinking of professional athletes as pampered, overcompensated celebrities. Tennis players are rewarded a fairly low percentage of the revenue their sport generates, compared with other professional athletes, with truly generous payouts reserved for tournament champions and runners-up. Last year, a first-round loser at Wimbledon, and therefore good enough to be among the best 128 players in the world, was paid just £14,500 — barely sufficient to break even after deducting tax, travel expenses and coaching costs. To foreigners, it must seem particularly unjust given that Britain’s Lawn Tennis Association (LTA) invests Wimbledon profits — largely accruing from the sale of overseas broadcasting rights — in supporting domestic talent, despite which there is not a single British man bar Murray ranked inside the world’s top 100 players.

Harman is not afraid to express strong opinions, such as the need for more rigorous drug testing, and obviously holds the LTA in very low regard. But he is rarely negative when discussing the players, explaining why he has been able to win their trust. Surprisingly, about the only one to have fallen out with him is the seemingly placid Tim Henman, apparently still upset that Harman broke news of his 2007 retirement without first seeking approval. Perhaps Harman’s endorsement of Henman as a “superb choice” for a future Wimbledon chairman will help to mend relations.