For one cloudy afternoon, Luke Milligan was as famous as Tim Henman. For the first time in 58 years, two Englishmen – one the 19-year-old son of a north London cab driver, the other the British No 1 from a gilded tennis dynasty – shared the stage on Centre Court at Wimbledon.
Dreams soared that June Saturday in 1996. Seven home players had survived the first round, which had not happened for 20 years, and here were two of them in the third round. Henman bore the greater expectations and, after the inevitable interruption for rain, completed a straight-sets win over the world No 278 on the Monday, but not before Milligan thrilled family and friends by going 3-0 up in the third set.
“That year at Wimbledon, it was amazing and fantastic,” Milligan says, “but, in terms of my own emotional maturity, it probably happened a bit too early. What’s happening now with player support, it’s unrecognisable in terms of the level of detail and professionalism. Given time, that can help a lot of the younger players to find their feet. I think players underestimate how challenging that can be. You’re dealing with your own expectations, the expectations of others.”
Henman got to the quarter-finals in 1996, where he lost to the American Todd Martin, so it was another fortnight of broken dreams, familiar to fans waiting for the reincarnation of Fred Perry. Henman would later play in four Wimbledon semi-finals over five years; Milligan, a national junior champion, played Davis Cup twice that summer and soldiered on at the fringes until he was 26, but he looks back with fondness on his day in the sun.
This past disrupted summer he returned to the centre of the game at LTA headquarters and is tasked with unearthing and nurturing talent between the ages of 11 and 14. Inside and outside the National Tennis Centre (NTC) set-up at Roehampton, Milligan has seen how the game works.
He says athletically gifted teenagers have some of the same distractions now as when he was growing up. “Pat Rice asked me to join [his] Arsenal youth set-up, and I said no, because my best mate had been scouted by Spurs, and I wanted to go to Spurs. But then Spurs never came knocking.
“Sometimes the success is as scary as the failure. Success can take you out of your comfort zone as much as failure – juggling everyday life as well. I look back wistfully and think, blimey, there really were times when I could have done with this level of support at those stages.”
For all that, there is struggle at the very top of the men’s game – especially with Andy Murray edging closer towards the end of his career – Milligan senses positive vibes further down the chain.
Davis Cup gave Milligan a lift, as it has done for Dan Evans. Some would suggest the mentoring Evans has had from the Great Britain captain, Leon Smith, has saved his career to the point where he is now British No 1 and playing as well as he ever has.
Smith also takes the long view. “I took on the role in July 2010 and here we are November 2020,” he says. “The team we started with then was very different to the team we went to Madrid with last year. We were 44 in the world back then, we got to No 1 in 2015, and we’re still top 10. In 2010 we had our superstar in Andy, top five in the world. If he didn’t play, James Ward was, like, 240 in the world.
“This time last year, I was having to call Joe Salisbury, who’s a top-10 doubles player, and say, sorry, you’re not in the team. I found it difficult, too, with Cam Norrie. He was 50 in the world. Just in a Davis Cup perspective, that change has been quite amazing. These are people at the top of the game, where you want to be.”
Anne Keothavong, briefly coached by Milligan as it happens and captain of the Great Britain Fed Cup team [now the Billie Jean Cup], is professionally cautious about the future, but sees in Emma Raducanu a teenager with immense promise – if she stays fit.
“She’s got something special,” Keothavong says, “but the immediate concern for me is her competing on a regular basis, and looking after her body. Probably the biggest problem we have with young players is the number of injuries they sustain from a young age, which I find quite worrying.”
While Keothavong thinks Scott Lloyd, the chief executive at the LTA since the start of 2018, has done well in upgrading facilities at the NTC and hopes the spread of indoor centres will help the year-round development of players, she wants them to be in charge of their own destiny.
“I’d like to think the NTC is a better place for players to go to than years ago. I spent many years practising there and I can tell you it was not terrible then. In terms of the facilities and the information the players have access to, that has improved significantly. There are absolutely no excuses. Everything is right there for them. It’s up to the players. But the quest to have more players competing at the highest level, that starts at grassroots.”
Keothavong grew up in London’s east end, without frills – much the same as Milligan; they both went as far as their talent and commitment would take them, and now they are looking to the future.
“My daughter’s just turned five and I’m exploring the opportunities. Even for her, someone that young, it surprises me, it shocks me [the lack of good coaching and facilities],” she says. “I can see why it’s a struggle when I’m going through my own experience with her, and just trying to find places for her to play, and what interests her, and how she reacts to different coaches.
“I didn’t realise the power they have and how they can influence young children. I’ve sat courtside already on a number of sessions, refraining from saying anything. I understand the game. I’d like to think I’ve got a better understanding of it than most people. But, as a parent of a young girl who’s just been introduced to the game, I find it unbelievably frustrating. Unless you’re prepared to do things yourself, I can see why it’s very difficult and why we lose so many people in the game.”