Interview with Leon Smith on 6th June 2010

Interviewed by John Cavill and transcript by Luke Barrett

When I travelled up to Nottingham last June for the Aegon ATP Challenger Event in Nottingham, Leon Smith had just been appointed the captain of the Great Britain Davis Cup team. For someone who didn’t play professionally and spent many years as a club coach, this was a phenomenal achievement. As well as being Davis Cup captain, Leon is also the head of men’s tennis at the LTA, a role which covers many aspects ranging from dealing with the junior side of things to organising tournaments.

Leon became Davis Cup captain when he replaced John Lloyd following Britain’s embarrassing defeat to Lithuania. When I spoke to him in Nottingham, he said that it was a great honour and was looking forward to the challenge of rebuilding the team. Since Leon took over, Britain have beaten both Turkey and Tunisia but there is still a lot of rebuilding to do to.  
However what was I really interested in hearing from him was his thoughts on player development and his time spent with Andy Murray. Leon first remembers seeing Murray when Leon was competing himself at Junior tournaments in Scotland. Murray’s mother Judy was coaching some of the players at the time and she would bring along the four year old Andy Murray who would play a lot of short tennis with his older brother Jamie. From a very young age Andy was in a tennis environment.

Leon would later become his coach when Murray was 12. However, Leon is quick to credit ‘a lot of the good work done before by Judy’ which had a massive influence on Murray’s development. Leon believes that the balance of the ‘fun but committed’ environment that Murray grew up in was key to his development. In Jamie, Andy had an older brother who played tennis so he always had someone to hit with and Leon recalls those two spending much time playing the likes of mini tennis, box tennis and touch tennis.

Murray was also a member of Dumblane Tennis club, a club which Leon describes as ‘normal’ and believes that it played an important role in helping build Murray’s foundations. When Murray was growing up, he often would play with men from an older generation who could use ‘funny and funky spin shots’ and with this came a good learning experience. Ultimately, Leon believes that it was a variety of a good influence of coaching, club tennis and a tennis environment that made Murray the player he is today.

Leon believes that every player is an individual case and when coaching them, you have to know the player well. You have to know what drives them on, what do they enjoy practising, what are their strengths etc. While some players like to do repetitive drills and spend all day training whether it be in the gym or on the court, Murray ‘got his kicks from competing.’ When coaching Murray, Leon tailored the training sessions so they involved as much competition as possible; even the simplest of drills had a scoring system. Much of the training sessions were made up of game related drills and with this Murray developed a good tactical brain.
As Murray started to go through puberty, Leon had to find a way to increase the training load. As he said before, you can’t undermine how important it is to understand the player you’re coaching. Leon introduced a lot of fun into training but also played on Murray’s strengths. Murray enjoyed hitting a lot of serves, practising passing shots, drop shots and changing the direction of the ball so these areas were focused on in training. When you watch Murray play today, all these aspects are evident in his game.

Not surprisingly, when I asked Leon about his best tennis memories, he mentioned his time spent with Murray. He considers all the years spent with Murray as ‘a great journey to be involved in’ but gave special mention to Murray’s first Wimbledon in 2005. At just 18, Murray exceeded all expectations by reaching the third round of the tournament before losing out to 2002 Wimbledon finalist David Nalbandian in a five set encounter. Leon accompanied Murray at the tournament as the young Scot truly made a name for himself at tennis’s most prestigious tournament.

After talking about his tutelage of Murray I probed Leon about the aspects needed to cope with the demand of being a tennis player. Leon placed heavy emphasis on the mental side of the game. He told me that due to the huge depth in tennis at all levels, a player needs to be mentally strong as they are fighting so many others for so little spots on tour level. For Leon, ‘fight’ and ‘resilience’ are key elements to success. It’s not about how nice a player looks on the court and how well they’re hitting the ball but how they cope when things are not going well on the court. Leon believes a player will perform well only a few times, most of the time a player will be playing average so it’s vital they can get through games when they know they’re not at their best.

Leon feels that the parents have a significant role in a player’s development. Obviously it is a huge commitment whether it’s time, money or care but one thing that is vitally important is balance; you need to know how to fit tennis around school and other commitments. Too much tennis at a young age can lead to a player forgetting about other aspects of life. As parents it’s understandable that you want to be heavily involved as you share with your child the rollercoaster of emotions that come with victory and defeat. However, while parents are key to a child’s development, they must trust and respect the coach that is working with their son or daughter. Of course they are part of the process but they must let the coach get on with things.
Leon essentially sees it as a team effort and having a strong unit is integral to development. The way to make and maintain a strong unit is for the coach to spend time with the parents of the player away from the court. As the player competes on the junior stage, there can be a lot of travelling which means the coach becomes a guardian or parent figure. This means that it’s not only important to take care of the tennis side of things but to be reinforce parenting issues such as maintaining values and making sure that homework is done.

As mentioned before, Leon didn’t play professionally. He spent many years as a club coach and built gradually and gradually towards performance tennis. He has many fond memories of coaching at outdoor clubs, schools and in parks and due to spending so long coaching grass roots level, he realises how important the ‘fun element’ is. In fact for Leon the number one aspect at the grass roots level is having fun. In addition, it needs to be accessible meaning that anybody can play and that equipment is provided. One aspect of grass roots level that Leon has been keeping an eye on is Mini Tennis. Leon believes the initiative is ‘great’ as it develops the tactical brain of the player which is a real positive. Players have to work out their opposition and by playing Mini Tennis, it develops their understanding of how to construct a point; when to attack, when to defend, using angles and drop shots to your advantage.
As the interview drew towards the end, I asked Leon what he would like to be remembered for. ‘I hope that British tennis can move forward as a family and with unity and producing good values so that we can have an identity which we can all be proud of.’

Time will tell if his vision will become reality, but what a positive picture he is trying to create.