Tenns: What a waste

James Nelson is, it is widely accepted, the best tennis player this region has ever produced.

James Nelson is, it is widely accepted, the best tennis player this region has ever produced.

At 21, he is a young man in the prime of life and, the statistics of his sport suggest, should be approaching his peak.

Three years ago, he was a US Open Boys' Doubles champion and one half of the top ranked junior boys doubles pairing in the world.

In singles, he provided stern teenage competition for current world top-five players Andy Roddick and Guillermo Coria and was a semi-finalist at the 2001 UK National Championships.

All told, in his first three-and-a-half seasons as a professional, he won 31 singles matches and three doubles titles.

By British standards, that's not half bad.

Yet he is now back with his parents in Northumberland having quit the game in January to pursue a coaching career.

Why? Well, in his time on the pro tour, Nelson, right, won $30,828 in prize money.

That's about 19 grand to you and me - and we aren't plying our trade in Queensland, Bagneres-De-Bigorre or Bangalore.

His funding from the Lawn Tennis Association having dried up, Nelson, in the words of his father, "wasn't even scraping a living".

Food for thought, perhaps, the next time you hear gushing praise for fair to middling professional footballers who accept a deferral of wages which exceed 19 grand a week.

But I digress.

For the real shame of the James Nelson story is not that his dreams of glory on the pro circuit came to nought.

"We accept that a tennis career is dependent on results and he didn't quite set the world alight," says dad, Jimmy.

Nor is it that neither the LTA nor other sponsors rallied to Nelson's aid when the harsh financial reality of life on tour bit.

"James is not someone who believes the world owes him a living," adds Nelson Sr, "and we recognise there has to be a cut-off point somewhere as far as the LTA is concerned."

No, the shame is that Nelson's other potential talents are now going ignored by that same organisation.

The LTA's main focus, quite rightly, is on unearthing champions of the future.

Nelson shares that vision.

But then the LTA wouldn't know about that, having failed to even ascertain what he is doing with his life - let alone let him offer the benefit of his recent experience to the country's top wannabees - since his retirement.

"That's my criticism of them: that, having looked after him from the age of 14, they have made no contact with James in the last few months to even ask what he is up to," says his father.

"He was - is - a fantastic doubles player and a great people person with such recent experience of life in the real world of tennis.

"Surely there must be a place for him - or the chance of a place, at least - working with kids down at the LTA."

Instead, Nelson has cheerfully faced up to life on a lower rung of the coaching ladder, while casually sweeping all before him at tournaments like last week's Northumberland Open.

"He's working at the David Lloyd Centre at Newcastle and working towards getting coaching qualifications," says his dad.

"He enjoys it and is grateful for the opportunity, but I couldn't believe it when he was asked to prove he could bounce a ball on his racket 15 times.

"This is a lad who has been in with some of the best players in the world today, yet there doesn't seem to be any coaching fast-track for someone as good as he is.

"I think he would be a fantastic coach who, because of his age and what he's done relatively recently, kids would really relate to.

"And if the LTA were to use him with the country's best young players and found out he wasn't much good, then fine.

"But not to even get in touch with him, let alone give him the chance, seems strange."

Strange indeed, given the recent appointment of the seemingly perceptive David Felgate, right, as the LTA's performance director.

"One of the things we haven't been good at doing in the past is converting our junior success into success on the (senior) tour," Felgate said on his opening day in the job.

"What I will be trying to do is find out the best way to deliver these great young players to the top echelons of both men's and women's tennis."

Strange, considering one of the regional LTA Acadamies which Felgate insists will play a key role in his quest is just down the road in Leeds.

Strange, and utterly damning.

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