I started playing tennis aged 7. I met Gordon Birt (International Coaching Consultant to Ace Academy and former coach of Steven Askey) at the age of 14 when playing a mini tournament in Thames Ditton. Started having coaching from him soon after that. He told me that I play well but I hit the ball too short, a problem which I have found incredibly difficult to fix!
I started going to play tennis and have lessons with Gord early before school, I would cycle about 3 miles and be ready to play by 06.40. I liked to always arrive first, can’t really explain why but it made me feel good to be first there, like I was gaining an advantage over other people. The sense of being up playing tennis while all my friends and rivals were still asleep sat well with me.
Remember turning up to training whilst the Morrills (Laura, now at Cambridge University, and Hannah, now at Harvard), I would listen to what Gord had to say and try to remember it. It always set the tone for the session, the intensity was never quite the same without the chat at the start of the practice. Then, usually I would go and hit serves for 30 minutes and hit against the wall for 30 minutes. I enjoyed hitting serves because I could see it getting better as I practiced, I had so many technical errors with it that I enjoyed ironing them out and trying to hit massive serves consistently. I never really understood how important the serve was even though I was practicing it. I now get how important it is and am so grateful that I went all those mornings to practice it, it has single headedly won me countless matches.
Hitting against the wall was always a bit of a chore for me. I found it immensely boring and sometimes struggled to concentrate. I enjoyed hitting volleys on it more than groundies, again perhaps because I really needed to work on my volleys and could see them improving as I went. I liked the idea of being able to come to the net and feel confident about it (that took years of practice).
The Saturday morning squad was brilliant, I was always the best player on the squad just because I was the oldest on it but I enjoyed it never the less and there was always someone that would put up a good challenge. I would just listen to what Gord had to say and then do my best and try not to make any unforced errors. It was easy when playing points because I hate losing, but when just drilling it can be easy to make sloppy errors and not worry about it so I just tried to concentrate as hard as I could when doing the simple drills and warming up especially.
Riding my bike to tennis was awesome, it didn’t really matter if it was raining or windy, I never really thought of it. It actually added more satisfaction to it. It kept me in good shape as well. I never felt that it was a chore because I always wanted to play tennis and that was the best way of getting there, I used to listen to my music on the way which would always put me into a sort of trance and get me ready for practice.
The real answer to why I have been able to become a half decent tennis player is because I love the game. It’s the reason I get up in the mornings at whatever hour. The friendships I have made out of it, the travelling I have done, the moments of success and failure equally stick in my mind forever. The amount of different ways I have won and lost matches will stay with me forever. The cheats, the times where I have won without trying, the times I have lost 0&0 in 10 minutes and come off the court wondering how it happened. They all stick with you.
My Mum and Dad never came to watch me play really. I had two sisters that needed looking after, they both had jobs and friends. But why would I want them at my training sessions?! Simply put I wouldn’t. They were always extremely supportive but they left me to do it myself. They knew I did my best and cared about what I did and that was all they needed to know. I don’t actually know the last time my parents saw me play tennis. That literally doesn’t bother me one single bit. It doesn’t matter. They know I love it and they know I work hard at it and live for it. I know they talk about it with their friends and know they are proud of me.
The reason I love tennis is because when I get out on the court everything else goes out of my mind. As soon as that first ball is struck that is where my head is. It doesn’t matter if other things outside of tennis are really getting me down, as soon as I get on the court it’s all I think about. There are times when a bad mood can be transferred from off court to on it but even then its about tennis and not the other thing!
Gord helped my life in more than just tennis terms. He instilled in me a work ethic that I just didn’t have before. For example I hated school work and would never do it to any sort of standard, if I didn’t enjoy something I simply wouldn’t really bother putting in the effort. Gord made sure that this changed. I continued hitting against the wall for example even though I often despised it. I worked much harder at school. I didn’t stay up in the evenings watching television or anything like that, I played tennis before school, went to school, came home, did my homework, then went and played tennis outside again and then went to the gym. It wasn’t like I didn’t see my friends because they all played tennis as well. Once a week I might take a day off or do something casual with my friends like go to the cinema. I didn’t drink.
In December 2004, Steve (Askey, my hitting partner and assistant coach) and I went to South Africa for a month. Amazing how long ago it is but I still remember almost everything from the trip. I was 17 and really had very little experience playing abroad apart from a couple of times on the German clay. It was, simply put, the best trip of my life and where I learned to play tennis properly for the first time. My parents funded the trip with extreme difficulty as we were struggling for money at this point. I tried to the make the most out of it and think I did pretty well. I know now how difficult it was for my folks to fund it for me and quite frankly I will never be able to quite thank them enough for it. It changed my tennis forever, it was the first time I learned tactically how to play, how to deal with the wind, how to deal with the heat and experienced all sorts of different matches. Having discussed tactics with Steve, we decided that I needed to rally with the backhand, then attack the forehand looking for the short ball to then approach the net and come and put the volley away. It all seemed fine from the back but when I came to the net I felt like a fish out of water. That was the case for the first 2 weeks anyway. The third week I was playing well. I was in the last round of qualifying, playing against a guy who I thought was pretty good. I lost the first set but was playing well and competing hard. All the practice was paying off. I was 4-2 up in the second set, the sun was blazing down and I knew I was starting to get on top of the match. Next thing I know he has an injury and gets medical timeout for what seemed like an eternity. Eventually he comes back and of course is absolutely fine! He destroys me 6-4 6-4 and I don’t know what has happened in the second set. I pick up my water bottle and launched it over the fence for miles. I lost concentration while he was injured and then couldn’t get it back for the restart. It was very disappointing. The next week I come out firing on all cylinders knowing that I can beat a lot of the guys in the draw. I am playing well, coming to the net and putting the ball away comfortably. I played a guy with a massive serve but put him away easily, then won another match and was in last round of qualifying. I played a guy who had a good record. I was serving at 6-5 up in the first and hit a bad volley at break point down, the guy stepped in and instead of just rolling it down the line he decided to blast it at me, I reacted and hit the volley into the open space. Ended up winning 7-5 6-1. Amazing how a match can turn on a dime like that. First round of main draw I won easily, last 16, who am I playing other than the same player who beat me the week before after being injured. I am obviously out for revenge! I am 7-5 2-1 up and he decides he is injured again! Incredible. This time I am obviously ready and when he comes back I win the set 6-1. Lesson having being learned from the week before I am in high spirits. The only problem is that my arm is destroyed, it was so fatigued that it was shaking, even opening the door was a challenge that evening. The next day I let it get to me more than I should have and got a thorough beating. Another lesson learned, if you are injured but you can still play you aren’t injured. Man up and ignore the pain.
Even though I am scared of flying I enjoy going abroad. There is nothing quite like seeing another country and seeing how things are done so differently there than in Britain, whether for better or for worse. Playing against foreign tennis players is also good experience. Going to university in Stirling has given me an amazing experience of tennis. I have been to Italy, Ireland, France, Russia, Montenegro and Croatia to play tennis whilst here at university. Some fantastic trips with some great tennis. One of the highlights was the Moscow trip in December. There is something about being so out of my comfort zone abroad that makes me play my best tennis. I think it has something to do with often feeling so dazed and out of place off the court that when I step on it everything seems perfectly normal as it’s where I know and feel comfortable. In Moscow I couldn’t have felt more out of place off the court and the opposite effect was had on the court. I couldn’t miss. I won most of my matches and took a guy 600 in the world very close (the courts were absolutely rapid).
Friendships and tennis go hand in hand. I have made many friends at university through tennis and throughout the rest of my life as well. It has shaped my life in a way that I never really thought it would!