/

Britain basks in unprecedented tennis success

AFP-JIJI

Having waited 76 years for a men’s Grand Slam champion and 24 years to celebrate a women’s tour winner, Britain, once tennis’ cash-heavy running joke, is suddenly a serious player.

Andy Murray’s U.S. Open victory, the country’s first men’s major since Fred Perry took time off from squiring Hollywood sirens Marlene Dietrich and Jean Harlow to triumph in New York in 1936, led the way.

Then, on Sunday, Heather Watson clinched the Japan Open, the first British winner of a women’s tour title since Sara Gomer at Aptos in 1988.

Add Murray’s London Olympic gold into the mix as well as 18-year-old Laura Robson making the Guangzhou final last month — the first such run by a British player since 1990 — then it’s hardly surprising that tennis is enjoying a mini-boom.

Figures released by the Lawn Tennis Association (LTA), the game’s ruling body in the country, show that almost 100,000 under-18s play at a LTA-registered club — an increase of 17 percent on last year.

“I know from speaking to Laura and Heather how passionate they are about getting more young girls into tennis,” LTA chief executive Roger Draper told the Guardian.

“They play with a smile on their faces and that enjoyment also comes through in what they do off the court. When we want girls to see tennis as a fun, social sport, what better advert for that than them?”

Social media also plays a role.

Watson, a former U.S. Open junior champion, has over 35,000 followers on Twitter while Robson, the 2008 Wimbledon girls winner, teamed up with Canadian youngster Eugenie Bouchard to make a Gangnam Style parody video, even enlisting the help of Maria Sharapova along the way.

Robson also enjoyed a fine run to the U.S. Open fourth round this year, sending former world No. 1 Kim Clijsters into retirement and defeating 2011 French Open winner Li Na.

Now, both Watson and Robson are expected to be in the top 50 by the end of the year.

Watson, born in Guernsey but based at the same Bollettieri academy in Florida which nurtured Sharapova, said her title in Osaka was the reward for years of sweat and toil.

“I’ve worked so hard for this moment my whole career — that’s why I practiced so hard, ran all those miles and lifted all those weights, for moments like this,” she said.

“Britain has been breaking quite a few records recently, so I’m happy I could break another one. I’m proud to do this for my country.”

Murray, the world No. 3, has long been Britain’s standout performer, and 2012 has been a year to remember for the Scot.

Murray insists there is a healthy future for the sport in Britain for both men and women players, pointing to Liam Broady’s runnerup spot at the U.S. Open juniors, a tournament that the Scot won himself in 2004.

“It’s in a very good place in the U.K. right now. I hope it stays that way,” said Murray.