'There’s miles more to come' - LTA wheelchair tennis coach Rob Cross forecasts a bright future for the sport
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There have been so many highlights for Britain’s wheelchair tennis players in the last few years and Rob Cross, the LTA’s Head Coach-Wheelchair Performance Pathway, is confident there is much more to come at this year’s US Open.
Cross leads a coaching programme that supports British stars such as Alfie Hewett, Gordon Reid, Lucy Shuker and Andy Lapthorne, who continue to produce impressive results in the four major tournaments and on Paralympic stages.
In addition, he also oversees the programmes producing the next generation of British wheelchair tennis stars, with teenager Ben Bartram heading to New York with high hopes as he prepares to play in the first junior wheelchair event to be contested at a major championship.
Ahead of a big US Open campaign for Britain’s elite wheelchair players, we caught up with Cross to talk about how wheelchair tennis has grown in recent years and what steps it can take next.
How did you get into coaching wheelchair tennis?
I never thought I’d be coaching wheelchair tennis - it happened quite randomly actually, as well. I was coaching performance junior tennis players, county players and a coach who coached a wheelchair player left our tennis centre, and recommended the player come to me.
That was 18 years ago so I’ve been involved in wheelchair tennis for a long time now, but I never thought I would be full-time in coaching, which I have been now for six years. I don’t even see the disability as I’ve been around players with disability for so many years, it’s just about if the forehand is good or not, if the backhand is good or not.
Hundreds of thousands of people watched Alfie Hewett’s Wimbledon matches, so was that the pinnacle of the sport to date?
It’s the best so far. Alfie’s semi-final on the Saturday against Gustavo Fernandez was the best wheelchair tennis experience I’ve ever had. With the atmosphere and exposure, live on BBC, it was amazing. I had goosebumps watching that and I don’t often get that when I’m watching tennis because it’s my job.
When I started wheelchair tennis, if you had said to me the players would be playing on Court 1 at Wimbledon or earning the money that they earn at Wimbledon, I would have never believed you. To see that and even from six years ago, where I know we did well in Rio, to see that was amazing. To be a part of that was something special.
How big of an impact has Alfie Hewett had on wheelchair tennis?
I was getting text messages from my friends who don’t really take much care about my work and they were watching his match at Wimbledon. I think that’s great as the average person who doesn’t really care about tennis is watching a wheelchair tennis player and saying it’s amazing. With the Alfie match the crowd grew, that’s what inspired me. At first, it was about 5000 people, then it was about 8000 people. People stayed, that was a sign - the standard of the match helped that, but it was a sign that the sport is evolving.
Has Alfie Hewett exceeded expectations or did we always know he would be as good as he is?
I wasn’t involved in Alfie’s programme at the start - probably only for the last three years - but I think it was expected. He’s always been that match competitor and just a natural talent. He’s getting more refined and the exciting part is that he is still improving. The world’s his oyster when it comes to this sport, he’s going to keep getting better and better - but the other players are as well. You’ve got Gustavo Fernandez, Shingo Kunieda, Gordon Reid, all who keep improving. It’s a big battle out there, every match is close.
Reflect on the importance of ambassadors the likes of Gordon Reid, Alfie Hewett, Andy Lapthorne and Lucy Shuker for the growth of the wheelchair game?
They speak well, they play well, they behave well, they’re professional. They’re very different characters as well, which is important. They’re not robots, they’re quite honest on certain things. They use social media.
They are different characters but also different characters to work with from the programme side. It’s quite nice. So everyone enjoys working together.
How much credit does the LTA deserve for the current success of British wheelchair players?
The LTA have really backed the sport through financing and staffing. For tournaments such as this, a lot of that goes into it. A lot of other nations can do it and I know a lot of other nations want to do it, but they focus on the other parts of tennis. I’d say the LTA is leading the world in what it’s doing.
It’s something to be proud of. Gordon, Alfie, Andy Lapthorne, Lucy Shuker, Jordanne While…. While we’re hoping to bring other players into the sport and carry on that success as these players can’t last forever. That’s where Wimbledon should have a big influence, being a big platform for our sport coming forwards.
Where does the sport go from here and where can it be in five years?
There’s miles more to come. Will it ever be equal? Probably not, but that’s fine. It’s being more respected, which is the first part of it. The prize money is growing but I think where it needs to go is that the tournaments will get bigger and provide more access to finance and funds for other players. At the minute the US Open have done a ground-breaking thing by expanding their draw. Hopefully the other Grand Slams follow that, but also the players who aren’t in the Grand Slams who want more opportunities to make a living in tennis and that will make the sport grow more. At the moment, it’s just the top players who can make a living, away from that it’s difficult. The sport will grow if we can have more players earning a living, so hopefully that can happen quickly.