Spreading the tennis word as the annual love affair with Wimbledon begins
On Monday eyes will turn to the All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club, in Wimbledon. Dubliner Dave Miley’s job is to ensure fans’ love affair with tennis lasts longer than the tournament
Dubliner: Dave Miley, head of development at the International Tennis Federation. photograph: rod leon
On a sunny day just before Wimbledon begins, young workers with chamois leathers and spray bottles walk slowly along the rows of seats in Court No 2, giving a final polish.
From Monday all 4,000 of them will be occupied from dawn until dusk by people who have made the annual pilgrimage to the All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club, in southwest London.
Unlike most of the crowd, Dave Miley, the head of development at the International Tennis Federation for more than 20 years, can come into the grounds at any time, given that the Dubliner has one of the club’s 350 precious membership cards.
He is not the first Miley to have walked through the gates. In 1927 his grandfather Jack Miley, a member of Fitzwilliam Lawn Tennis Club, in Dublin, did so when he played for Ireland against England in the Davis Cup.
Today Miley is responsible for leading the federation’s efforts to spread the tennis message globally – a job that keeps him on the road for up to 150 days a year, travelling from Bujumbura to Beijing, from Indian Wells to Istanbul.
His job has clear aims, Miley says as he sits in the warm sunshine on a balcony in the Centre Court building: to get more people playing tennis, to raise coaching standards internationally and to offer help to develop talented players.
“For a lot of African players, getting visas is very difficult; tennis balls, for example, cost a lot of money. Travel to tournaments costs a lot. It is quite amazing to see some people coming through over the years.”
Unlike most other sports, tennis has reaped the benefits of thinking globally. Despite their sports’ other successes, the great prizes of football, rugby and even cricket are unlikely to be won by countries other than those that are part of the top 20, perhaps even the top 10.
“It remains international. It wouldn’t be good if only four or five countries were dominating tennis,” Miley says. “The great thing is that there are 46 countries represented in the top 100 [players]. That’s good for TV rights, sponsorships and the sport. Sharapova is just as famous as Nadal. Unlike other sports, we have very famous men and very famous women. We want to keep it like that.”
Miley’s team of 46 includes three in Africa, one in South America, two in Central America and the Caribbean, one in Asia, one in the Pacific and one in Eastern Europe, with three coaches travelling full time.
Sporting bodies are facing new challenges to encourage the next generation of players. “I go to a lot of International Olympic Council meetings. All sports are concerned that young people are dropping out between 12 and 17.”
Children today have other attractions. “It used to be that if you were very good at sport you were well regarded. People looked up to you. Today the ones who are highly regarded are the ones with the most Facebook friends. We are changing our sport to adapt to lifestyles. Tennis scoring has changed; you can play one-set matches or two sets and a tie-break. No deuce games . . . Play short sets.”
Shorter games help busy people to play a short game on the courts, rather than heading to the gym, while changes to the rules for younger players mean that even the less able are given guarantees of more games.
“Now everybody plays the same number of matches, not just the good players. Parents can drop them off at 10 o’clock and pick them up at noon. Before they wouldn’t be sure, and we have done this without changing the winning and losing spirit of the game.”
But the business of tennis is never far from the forefront, as the programmes have reaped commercial rewards. “In the US the sales of rackets of between 21in and 23in – kids’ rackets – went up 88 per cent in one year. Ball sales went up from 500,000 to six million.”
Meanwhile, people in their 40s who had spent years playing other sports were too often put off tennis, believing that the sport “was too difficult”, or they turned away because tennis was taught “in a very boring, very static way”. People’s attention span is “very short now”.
Miley still has the same gruelling schedule that he had when he took up the post, after a few years running a tennis centre in Kent and earlier years “coaching and stringing rackets in Dublin”.
He has known some dark days. In 1992, just a year into his job, his wife, Daisy, whom he met when he was a coach in Dublin, died from viral myocarditis.
“One day my kids were playing. She went to have a shower. I tried to revive her, but she died. It was very hard. One minute my life was perfect, and the next minute it wasn’t,” he says quietly. “Suddenly I had three kids looking at me wondering, What are we going to do?”
Travelling stopped for six months, but it resumed on the back of “a fantastic group of people” who came to the family’s home in Wimbledon, staying for years a time and becoming “part of the family”.
His eldest son, Simon, who is 28, works in the City in London; Twenty-two-year-old Thirza – named after a character in a Thomas Hardy novel – has finished an English literature degree; and Hugo, who is 20, is studying at Trinity College Dublin.
Back in Wimbledon, SW19 has started getting used again to the sight of internationally known tennis players: Roger Federer goes to Maison St Cassien for a coffee some mornings; fellow players occupy tables at Thai Tho, in the village, in the evenings.
“There is a great atmosphere around here in the days before Wimbledon begins, a great buzz,” says Miley, although, like the other 349 members of the All-England Club, his rights to play are suspended for a fortnight from today.
By now the mobile phone that has buzzed repeatedly can no longer be ignored.
“If Wimbledon is sunny, then everybody in my world goes to watch tennis. If it rains then they decide that they should come to a meeting with me,” he says with a laugh.
Players and fans are not the only ones praying for sunshine over the next fortnight.