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Michael Downey: I should have spent more time trying to talk to Andy Murray

Michael Downey has almost reached the end, both of this interview and his three-and-a-half-year tenure as the chief executive of the Lawn Tennis Association, when he slips on his peach jacket and twirls his umbrella for old times’ sake. He leaves his job on Friday and returns home to Toronto to be reunited with his family and resume working in the equivalent position at Tennis Canada – a role he filled previously for nine years.

I am about to switch off my recorder when Downey says “I’ll tell you one final story” in his avuncular way. He begins by explaining that when he first joined Tennis Canada in 2004 he was asked to show Mark Miles, then the chief executive of the ATP, which runs the men’s tour, around a new stadium in Toronto. “I’m on month one of my new job and we walked around,” Downey remembers. “We get to the parking lot where the players are dropped off and Mark starts kibitzing with one of the players. He introduces me but he doesn’t introduce the player. I walk away with Mark and ask, ‘Who was that?’ He goes, ‘Roger Federer.’”

Downey chortles at his past ignorance. “Mark said: ‘I will use that.’ I said: ‘No you won’t because I will tell people that story before you.’ I did not know it was Roger Federer.”

A few minutes earlier Downey had told me, “After my first interview I said to my wife: ‘I’ve actually got to go and figure out who is No1 in the world. I didn’t even know what Davis Cup was.’”

Federer was world No1 when Downey met him and so his first month of research had not gone to plan. It’s a surprising story, which Downey tells against himself, but he also argues that he started with a clean slate. “It’s fresh thinking and I wasn’t intimidating. Coaches would sit with me and they wouldn’t be intimidated because I wasn’t going to teach them a backhand. I just wanted to facilitate growth. Sometimes if you know too much you actually meddle too much.”

Downey might be demob-happy but he is also able to claim he is leaving British Tennis on a good note. On Thursday morning, on his second-last day in office, Downey will announce that the LTA is about to launch the largest grassroots investment in the history of British tennis: £250m will be used to address some of the most obvious barriers to playing tennis in this county by increasing the number of covered and floodlit community courts by 50% – while also installing an online booking system so that public courts can be reserved easily. The LTA has committed £125m to the scheme, called Transforming British Tennis Together, and promised to release a further £125m in conjunction with local councils and community networks. Over the next decade the LTA aims to generate 750 newly covered courts, 4,000 more floodlit courts and 3,000 online court entry systems across the country.

“We sold half our stake in the ground company at Wimbledon and that gave us around £56m,” Downey explains. “But the board was clear we would not spend it until we had a robust long-term plan, so it took us some time. Everything we learned from local authorities and parks partnerships has helped us to decide how best to use the money. Only 7% of the courts in Britain are covered – and 40% of that number belongs to David Lloyd Leisure. Now David Lloyd Leisure is a phenomenal operation but you have to pay £100 a month, so you’ve only really got 4% of courts with a cover on them. France is at 30%, the Netherlands over 20%, Germany over 10%.

“Most of our park courts, and even the vast majority of clubs, don’t have nightlights. So, by adding floodlights, at certain times of the year we can add four to six hours of tennis a day. We then coupled it with the fact tennis is an analogue sport in a digital world. I must credit our participation director, Alastair Marks, for testing some digital access systems where you actually can download a number, tap it in and it opens the court and turns the lights on from a computer. We’ve decided that every one of the investments we make, whether floodlights or a cover, will also have this access system. That’s a big gamechanger.

“We want to make our investment through communities coming together. When Manchester comes together, with the clubs, the parks, the coaches and the schools, we will underwrite some of the money for covers, night lights and access systems. But it’s not just about investing in a club for the benefit of those members. They have to have partners, so if we’re putting money into a club it has to have at least one other partner and offer access for the whole community. We’ve found that if we put £1 into park courts, we’re getting £3 or £4 back from the local authority. So we should easily get matching funds [to the LTA’s initial £125m].”

Pilot schemes have been run successfully in Sheffield and Portsmouth but Downey is candid when asked if tennis is too white, too middle-class and too expensive to be accessible to the majority of people? “There’s no doubt. That’s the problem globally. It would be the same in Australia, the US, Canada and across Europe. Tennis tends to be rooted in this club network. So if we’re going to turn around the sport for the long haul we’ve got to get more participation in parks, so you’re getting a mainstream audience. That would help change perceptions.”

The impact of Thursday’s announcement would be bolstered significantly if the reigning Wimbledon champion and world No1 supported the initiative. But Andy Murray has been unimpressed by Downey – and his relationship with the LTA has always verged on the dysfunctional. Murray has achieved great success despite the LTA’s past failings and he is reluctant to endorse a body that has often appeared lumbering and complacent.

Downey must feel acute disappointment and a sense of personal failure that he could not forge a decent working relationship with Murray. “That’s a good question. Do I wish there was a stronger relationship? Absolutely. But my job, fundamentally, is to lead the LTA and grow participation. Andy’s fundamental job is to win. He’s done that as world No1. We have evolved our partnership and Andy will get behind Great British Tennis Weekend. When Andy won Wimbledon in 2013, before I joined, we created The Great British Tennis Weekend. That was only in 40 clubs that summer to celebrate Andy’s win. It’s now in a thousand venues and 50,000 people this summer will get behind Great British Tennis Weekend.”

Yet, considering Thursday’s news, surely Downey should have found a way to garner the support of Murray – a down-to-earth man who is passionate about tennis after he and his brother Jamie grew up in a Scottish town, Dunblane, never previously associated with the sport. With the help of their mother, Judy, Andy and Jamie became grand slam winners.

“Andy provides a lot of the inspiration that grows the sport,” Downey says. “Look at what he did so well through Davis Cup. He took it on his shoulders. Not only did he want to win Davis Cup but he wanted to develop those guys around him. He has been unbelievable in inspiring Kyle Edmund, Dan Evans and James Ward.”

Is there anything Downey wishes he had done differently in regard to Murray? “I probably would have dedicated more time to it. I spent a lot of time trying to lead the organisation and build and operate a new strategic plan. I should have spent more time trying to talk to Andy.”

Downey once said it was difficult to find a way for his diary to coincide with Murray’s schedule. Should he have just said they could meet whenever it suited Murray? “It’s another fair point. I should have put more time into it, no doubt.”

He nods when I ask if the immediate aftermath of Great Britain winning the Davis Cup in 2015, for the first time since 1936, marked his lowest point. Murray led a stinging condemnation of the LTA and he was supported by his captain, Leon Smith. Apart from castigating the LTA for failing to capitalise on his first Wimbledon victory, they called for changes while highlighting the absence of promising juniors. Murray implied it would be futile for him to spend much time with Downey.

“We obviously didn’t expect that to happen,” Downey grimaces. “We thought the interviews would all be about the celebration – but the players, led by Andy, put out a challenge. They said: ‘We want to know where the next generation is.’ A programme called Tennis for Kids came out of that. We moved quickly and took a lot of risks as we built a programme that was about free tennis, a free racket, six free lessons. We went out and got a thousand coaches. We thought we’d get 10,000 kids but we got close to 14,000. Nearly 50% of those kids have stayed in the game. This year we’ve done it again and we’ll probably get 25,000 kids.

“We’re working well with the players now so that we can use their star power to inspire. With Jo Konta [the world No7] we’ve got an agreement where she’s getting behind Great British Tennis Weekend, Tennis for Kids and is an ambassador in our female programme. Jamie Murray’s also an ambassador for local park meets and we’re doing a lot with Kyle.”

Downey will be replaced at the LTA by Scott Lloyd – the son of David Lloyd. “Scott was born and raised in British tennis,” Downey says. “I could never match that because I come from Canada and a non-tennis background. He has helped build the David Lloyd centres and they have about 500,000 members. I come from a corporate background but Scott’s going to bring an entrepreneurial flair and he’s obviously good at what he does.”

Downey is a friendly man but he has also overcome adversity. Next month it will be 10 years since he was diagnosed with two unrelated forms of cancer on the same day. “In the morning I was diagnosed with prostate cancer and later that afternoon I was told I had colon cancer,” he remembers. Downey went through surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy and made a full recovery. But the decision he and his wife have taken, to return early to Canada, is understandable – especially as Downey’s two sons live in Toronto.

He clearly wants to leave British tennis on a high and he argues, “We’ve done a lot of good stuff. When the executive team and I came on board the sport had been in decline for 10 years. We’re now rolling at 6% growth on a monthly participation basis. We’ve nearly got two million people claiming to play the sport at least once a month.”

The task of transforming British tennis would not have been even halfway done had Downey completed his five-year contract. It will take another 10 years, at least, to see lasting changes in the wake of this week’s initiative. And so, when asked what marks out of 10 he might give himself at the LTA, Downey offers a middling “seven”.

Yet he is most proud of “the executive team that’s in place. It’s a very good group of leaders who are focused on growing the sport at the grassroots. If your sport isn’t growing at the grassroots your national governing body isn’t doing its job. We are growing. In terms of what I am least proud of, I have to go back to the relationship with the best players. Am I happy where we are now in terms of the progress we’ve made? Yes. But I wish we’d been in this place 36 months ago. Still, better late than never.”