Article about Alan Jones by Neil Harman
Think of the world’s foremost coaching principals and exotic surnames come to mind that resonate of cocktails and sun-kissed skin - Bollettieri, Groeneveld and Mouratoglou to name but three - who are not shy of self-promotion and gorge on the flattery that comes with the territory.
The British equivalent is a Jones, in this case Alan Jones, who would rather run a mile (and has done that many thousands of times for the cause of trying to make real players out of raw–boned bodies and wide-eyed dreams) than open a Twitter account or feel inclined to climb aboard a bandwagon.
The winner of the Lawn Tennis Writers’ Association’s award for Services to Tennis in 2017 will not be interviewed by the BBC during Wimbledon though he knows an awful lot more about tennis than many of those engaged to speak. He is not invited onto Sky to offer his pearls of wisdom, and that can’t be because he wouldn’t have something to say – he undoubtedly would – but because he might say something that would make people really think. And that marks him out.
The quiet enforcer – I suspect he wouldn’t particularly like the description – behind the launch at the David Lloyd Centre at Northwood in Middlesex of Junior Elite Tennis with is a 70-year-old with a passion for the sport of someone 40 years his junior. He prefers others to pinpoint his record of coaching 30 players who have played at Wimbledon that makes him the outstanding coach of his generation in the United Kingdom.
There is one final ambition for the man who is the mainstay of benefactor Farid Rafiee’s enterprise on fringes of London - to unearth the next in line, the one who can really shine, the protégé-to-be. And he is clearly in the right place, at the heart of the best of its ilk, a training base-camp of the highest pedigree.
That Jones remains as excited about the sport s he did when he first played it speaks of someone who has not been dragged down the politicking that goes with the territory, but has sought simply to rise above it and tell the story as it is meant to be told, not one for the molly-coddled but as straightforward and complex-free as tennis ought to be.
Not that long ago, he thought he might hang up his coaching boots. “David Felgate (another British workaholic coach who never seems to rest) came to me and said he had a backer and needed me to be the guy who set up the daily function of a performance facility. I said, you know what, I probably thought I’d had enough, but I met with Clive [Sherling] with David at Chiswick and thought ‘Wow’ here I am, 68, I like it, I’ll take the challenge on.
“At some stage, for Clive, we wanted to have a player who could be centre stage, that was the real goal. They are one in a million, one in ten million, and we really wanted to find this person for Clive. And there two or three within our bunch who are starting to excel. The opportunity for me now is to do the same with Farid. It’s something that really excites me.”
I wondered if the basics of what Jones has excelled at down the years, had changed at all. “The game definitely changed, surfaces, rackets, balls, the people attracted to it and men’s from women’s. I can separate that,” he said. And there is the vexed question about Talent ID (identification). “If I watch a tennis match from beginning to end, I have an understanding how they (the players) do battle, their skill base, their athleticism, their decision-making, their courage, in one match. If I see more, I get to know them more.
“Talent ID? I’m doing that all the time, I find it a baffling exercise. Is their room for a Mary Pierce today, who was a poor athlete. My God, you have to be risk and reward. The game is so athletic, if you haven’t got athletic speed, jumping and leaping, great perception skills, don’t even play tennis. Most coaches spent their time teaching what they see on the outside, the beauty of the strokes.
“It is the inside that matters, the heart, the will the vision, the appreciation of the journey of the ball, teaching strokes is easy but getting people with those animal instincts, the vision of an eagle, the speed of a cheetah, the courage of a lion, the stamina of a husky, all these attributes are the ones I don’t think people are looking for. It is what makes Roger (Federer) so appealing, because he makes the game look beautiful.”
Jones has not always been on the fondest of terms with everyone, largely because he does not shield his opinions behind a goody two-shoes approach. If it is there to be said, better say it. He would loved to have coached Andy Murray (who wouldn’t) because he believes he knows what makes him so special.
“What gifts Murray has,” he says. “I’ve been in this game a long time and he holds (his position on the court) better than anyone better than I’ve ever seen. He forces people to go where he wants them to go. I’ve watched match after match over the years and you know players and where they are and their shot capability, he Federer, Nadal, Sampras, I’ve never seen anyone hold the position to make them go where he wants them to go and on the back of that, for a big man, he moves beautifully. It is just so important.
“Why he hasn’t been better is that he’s always had to deal with his demons and sometime he gets too safe. You’ve got to love the battle. When Murray is trying, he’s among the most formidable of opponents. What a talent, what an athlete.”
Of course, the decline of the sport across the years, as successive LTA regimes has struggled with how to come to terms with their role, hurts him. Jones is a tennis apostle, he spreads the word and if that word is not expressed clearly enough, he will challenge it. “What needs to happen (to improve British tennis)? We have to open the game up to everybody. Grow the game in such a way that a family is welcomed at a club. In a manic drive for success, which the governing body should not have been involved with, we marginalised a lot of people. You cannot tell ten years olds, they are the best ten year olds. The LTA was monitoring numbers and paying out on numbers early and when that was ‘in’ and numbers were high, but two, three years on, and 60% of those numbers had given up and they were still shown as playing, so it was a con. Do you know what counted as a match - they (coaches) would blow a whistle, play for ten minutes, blow another whistle and that was a match, so all these numbers were false, they weren’t playing for the right reason and then you’d get to ten years old and you’d have talent ID. And you’d tell the majority that they weren’t good enough. We got it so bizarrely wrong, at ten, we chose those who had played more, those who were bigger and stronger, all the reasons why you’re good earlier and give them funding.
“If the mantra is now to grow the game, you and I probably won’t see the benefit of it because it will take 15/20 years. If you go around France, Germany, Belgium, the clubs are prospering, while our clubs are dying. Our club structure is archaic. The best have been bullied into going into academies. We had 20 of them (academies) and we didn’t have 20 players. It’s frightening how we wasted so much money effort and time on futile exercises these past few years. “
Thus speaks the sage of Northwood. He is always worth listening to. More importantly, if you want your child to learn how to play this game and what it takes to succeed, you cannot find a better home.