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Why Britain will always trail behind the superpowers

BRITISH tennis fans are celebrating the fact that they have two women in the world's top 50 for the first time in 25 years.

With Heather Watson at No.47 and Laura Robson at No.50, and Glasgow's Maia Lumsden winning the Under-14 title at the Orange Bowl in Florida last month – the event is widely regarded as the junior World Championships – it is surely the most solid that women's tennis in Britain has looked in a long time.

So, the women's side of the game is in rude health. Or is it? Is this what now constitutes success: having two girls on the outer reaches of the world's top 50? Or is it possible that the only reason we are celebrating this achievement is because the depth of women's tennis in Britain has been so poor in years gone by.

Compare this to the Russian women. A decade or so ago, the former Soviet state had few world-class women tennis players to speak of, whereas, going into this year's Australian Open, there were five Russian women in the top 25 in the world. My sport, badminton, has been afflicted by a similar case of domination: Chinese women's singles players occupy five spots in the world's top 14 badminton players. This level of dominance by the Asian superpower has been the case for over a decade.

So what are these countries doing differently to Britain? There is the clear advantage that they hold in terms of population size. Both China and Russia have a significantly larger pool of players to select from in comparison to Britain, so, by law of averages, are likely to produce more players. But this is not the only reason why they are churning out world-class players at an enviable rate.

While British tennis has lofty ambitions to emulate the strength in depth demonstrated by Russia in tennis, or China in badminton, there is no way that this country will ever get close to either.

Regardless of how much money is pumped into sport in the UK, or no matter how good the facilities are or how experienced the coaching team is, Britain will never be able to implement the training methods that these countries do to ensure that their athletes are successful.

Consider how China treat their potential champions. As children, they are removed from their home environment and put into specialised sports boarding schools. Here, their academic studies are combined with a high volume of training. Even at the tender age of eight or nine, their training programme will include time on-court, gym work and fitness sessions. The children will, even at primary school age, be doing about the same number of hours of training as I was doing in my 20s. It would be utterly unrealistic to think that this template could ever be implemented in Britain. The majority of children wouldn't last one week.

If you consider Malcolm Gladwell's theory which states that 10,000 hours of practice is required to master a skill, then it is little wonder that Chinese badminton players reach this stage much earlier than a British child who may not even take up their chosen sport until secondary school.

It is not only the volume of training which sets Chinese children apart. There is no attempt to make training fun. They practise monotonous routines over and over again until they improve. There are very few British children who would remain in a sport if they were asked to replicate what the Chinese children have to do. And the coaches are tough. I have witnessed a Chinese boy being slapped in the face, presumably for producing a sub-standard training session. During the children's flexibility sessions their bodies are literally forced by their coaches into uncomfortable and often painful positions. Clearly, this couldn't be done in Britain. Allegedly, the treatment of young athletes in Russia is similar, so it is easy to understand why athletes from these countries are more focused than their British counterparts.

I am confident that in one-off cases British players can compete with athletes who have been brought up in much tougher training regimes. But, it will remain only individual players who will break through; as long as Russia and China continue to train their champions of the future much harder than we do in this country then we will never get close to matching their strength in depth.

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