Chapters In My Life: Annabel Croft

Chapters In My Life: Annabel Croft

Annabel Croft was ranked amongst the world’s top 25 players, represented Great Britain and won two junior Grand Slams. She was considered to be the brightest of British tennis prospects but, at 21, she gave it all up, tired of the relentless travel and feeling she no longer enjoyed playing. She moved into the television world and now focuses on covering the men’s and women’s tennis tour, and interviewing top players all over the globe. Here, she shares memories and anecdotes from her life and career…

Chapter One: Growing Up & Discovering Tennis

“I grew up in Farnborough in Kent. I was the middle child between Simon, who is two years older than me, and my sister Louisa who is about four-and-a-half years younger. My father was a chartered surveyor and was always off travelling round the world looking at hotels – he had a very international lifestyle. According to my mother, I was a very active child and used to exhaust all of my playmate friends because I had too much energy. I did a lot of ballet at quite an intense level from a young age – I loved it, did all the exams and wanted to become a ballerina. I had an amazing ballet teacher, and I can remember my time in her classes and being chosen to do demonstrations at the Royal Academy. 

“Even though my mother played a lot of tennis at club level, I only discovered tennis when I was nine, which is quite late by today’s standards. We were on a family holiday in Marbella and there was a tennis coach doing group lessons at the hotel and I can picture that first lesson when I picked up a racket for the very first time. I came back from that holiday obsessed about tennis and wanted to play all the time. My mother found a local tennis club in Kent, called Sundridge Park, where there was a really great coach with a terrific sense of humour. The lessons costs 50p and, every day, I’d arrive carrying my 50p piece! We were taught forehands on a Monday, backhands on a Tuesday, taught how to volley on Wednesday, how to serve on Thursday, then we’d put it all together at the end of the week. They had these awful pinky-orangey sweatbands as prizes and I really wanted them. So that is how I started, after which I began entering tournaments.”

Chapter Two: My First Win

“As a rank outsider, I unexpectedly won the nationals when I was 12. Letters from the Lawn Tennis Association started coming through the letterbox saying I’d been picked to do national training at the Bisham Abbey tennis centre. That was the moment my childhood changed completely – suddenly, I was on this pathway and I didn’t even think about it because it was so exciting being picked to represent my country and going off to Sweden, Germany, France, Holland, all over the place, to play in international tournaments. It all happened so fast and I grew up incredibly quickly. 

“It took a long time for my parents to decide which school I should go to because of all the training and travelling. They also made me choose between riding (my other love), ballet and tennis, and obviously I was going to make tennis my choice as it was already so exciting. Giving up ballet is something I deeply regret to this day – it’s so freeing of your body, whereas tennis makes your shoulders tight and hunched, and there’s too much tension in the competition side of it. I wish I’d kept up the ballet just to keep my body open, but in the last 12 years or so I’ve discovered yoga and totally love it, as it’s taken me back to my original ballet form.”

Chapter Three: My Tennis Idols

“When I was growing up, Bjorn Börg was my obsession and, when I was 13, I was so intent on getting into the standing area to see him play John McEnroe in that very famous Wimbledon final that I snuck in on a fake badge with my brother. We got through the gates early and were standing outside the club house, not really knowing what to do. There I was in my little dress and my brother looking as smart as he could, and we obviously stuck out like sore thumbs! Security came up to us and asked what we were doing there as we were supposedly staff members but not doing anything. I always remember one of the guards asking me what my name was and having to look down at my badge to check. My brother had to do the same and we didn’t have the same name on our badges. The guard then asked if we were brother and sister – I said yes, my brother said no, and we were escorted out of the grounds. We never got in and had to listen to the match on the radio on the way home. It was funny because two years later I actually played there. 

“Börg had an amazing aura, he was really special, with so much calmness. He was the first to take tennis players to a sort of rock star status – he really had that feel about him. A few years later, I remember him coming into the players’ lounge and, although there were other famous players in there like Jimmy Connors, when Börg walked in the entire room came to a standstill. He even did that among his own peer group.

“Chris Evert was a massive idol of mine, too – I played her at Wimbledon in the third round in the year I won the Juniors. She was incredibly thoughtful and giving towards me – I remember some years later, when I was struggling, I was on the same plane and she sent a note to me with her phone number saying she knew I was having a hard time and asking if there was anything she could do to help – which she ended up doing.”

Chapter Four: Living In America

“I went to live in Houston when I was 15 because that is where the coach we had chosen lived. It was the best decision I could have made, as it got me away from Britain, where there was a constant magnifying glass on my life. I was on the front page of all the papers after my first Wimbledon in 1982 and it was quite overwhelming. I was quite shy naturally so wanted to get away from all the stress and pressure. Going to live in America, and be nobody, where I could train five hours every day and have no outside influences was the best thing for my tennis.

“That was my base, and I’d do five- to six-week runs of events wherever they were, then back again. I hardly ever came home to Britain until I stopped playing internationally. I don’t really remember missing my family – I was young and very independent. I loved learning things from the different cultures I was experiencing; for instance, when I went to Japan and had Japanese sponsors, they’d take me out to tea ceremonies, karaoke bars (in those days no one had ever heard of them over here) and it was all completely new to me. I was learning so much, which in a way was making up for my lack of formal education. I only ended up doing English and maths and a bit of art at school.” 

Chapter Five: My First Wimbledon

“I played my first senior Wimbledon match in 1982 when I was 15. My mother always wanted to make sure I had the right fuel on board and had been well fed, and she took me to the London Steakhouse in Wimbledon Village, which is quite funny when I think about it now! I was drawn against Romania’s Lucia Romanov in the first round and we were playing on Court 2 which was one of the main show courts. I won the first set 6-1 which was quite a shock to everybody; I just came out of the blocks really quickly and it shocked me too that I was beating this tour player. I remember all the players and press guys were leaning out from the balcony above, but then experience shone through for her, and it all drifted away and I lost the match.”

Chapter Six: Life On The Tour

“When you’re 17, 18, 19, life on the tennis circuit is not like that of a normal girl that age. I’d been going round the globe for about six years, dealing with agents, sponsors, managers and living a very adult life in a very accelerated way. Socially you’re used to meeting lots of people and talking to them but it’s not a normal social life where you’re meeting boys, going to parties and you don’t really have any friends.

“I remember reading lots of books on philosophy and just being unhappy. This wasn’t quite what I thought I was signing up to and all I could see up ahead was a life of perpetual competition. I wrangled with all this in my head for a long time, probably for two or three years, and finally came to the conclusion that I had done what I wanted to do on the tour and wanted another life. I wanted to get married, have children, I wanted to explore more about life than just getting up in the morning and competing. Now, I am a different person and have learnt so much more about myself, so would probably have a different approach to it. 

“I also had a lot of fear as I had so much pressure. Of course, you put pressure on yourself as a tennis player because you always want to win but, if happiness depends on winning a tennis match, it’s a very difficult starting point because you can’t win every match. What I didn’t quite appreciate is that it’s like an apprenticeship where you are going improve and move up the rankings as the top players drop off, and eventually you’ll get where you want to be. But because I’d done so well as a junior – I’d won all the national tournaments at 12, 14, 16 then both Junior Wimbledon and the Australian Open – I just assumed that when I got on to the main tour I’d win. But of course, it doesn’t work like that; you get pushed right back down to the bottom and my confidence took a bit of a hammering.

“Also, in those days, we didn’t have sports psychologists – it’s such a major part of sport today. My biggest regret is that I didn’t have someone who could understand what I was trying to do. I would have had a much better coping mechanism had I had use of the tools that are available today. I was sent off to a psychologist in Harley Street, who was actually a marriage guidance counsellor – he did his very best to help me understand tennis, and I learnt a lot from him, things I still use today. He did a lot of hypnotherapy with me to help me block out the crowds because I was very fearful, which comes back to that natural shyness. It’s one thing to be playing really well on your back court with no one watching but, if you have to reproduce a performance out on a stage with 20,000 people there, you can be very inhibited and freeze. It was stage fright and I wasn’t equipped for it. 

“Age 21, ranked 24 in the world, I quit.”

Chapter Seven: Getting Into Television

“I came off the tour and it was a huge weight lifted off my shoulders, but I didn’t have clue about what I wanted to do. I didn’t have an education, or anything, so I made a list of everybody in TV I’d ever met and thought I’d ring around a few people to see if there were any opportunities I could get involved with. Some said I was not really cut out for it and others said I’d never be any good – they were quite rude actually.

“However, I got an opportunity when Janet Street-Porter’s Network 7 asked me to do a show called Survival. Together with a city stockbroker, a Parkhurst Prison inmate and a Brookside actor, we were flown out to Sri Lanka and dumped on an island in the middle of the ocean to see if we could survive with absolutely nothing. We were given a machete, a roll of loo paper, a tinder box and a chicken; we lived like cave people with no food, no water and we had to build our own shelter. That was the original version of I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! in its rawest form, 30 plus years ago. They’d never get away with it now from a health and safety point of view. 

“The programme got a lot of publicity and was on the front pages of all the papers, and the day I got back to England there was a message on my answerphone from the Treasure Hunt production office saying that Anneka Rice was pregnant and asking me to come in for a test. One thing led to another, I landed the job and filmed a whole series which took me everywhere. It was really fun, jumping in and out of helicopters, running across the lawns of stately homes, one of the best things I’ve ever done. 

“Over the next five years, I did theatre and pantomime – I was spreading my wings, enjoying being free and doing all sorts of things away from picking up a tennis racket. In fact, I didn’t pick up a racket for at least two years – there was that chunk of time when I had nothing to do with tennis at all and then, as Sky and Eurosport opened up, I was the first one through the door and went right back to my roots. It was almost as if I needed to grow up and mature and have a better experience of life.”

Chapter Eight: Meeting My Husband, Marriage & Children

“I met Mel [Coleman] when I was 21, just before I came off the tour. I had been playing in New York at the US Open and my coach who was very close to John Newcombe thought I needed a bit of a mentoring session with him. John and I sat on the grass outside the venue and he suggested I take some time away from the sport and have a think about whether I really wanted to play tennis, as I seemed quiet unhappy. He gave me a very good pep talk. As we were having this chat, I got a message on my phone from my mother saying that the BBC production office in Belfast were asking whether I’d be interested in filming a programme about yacht racing. I’d never been on a yacht before, but it ended up with me, Eamonn Holmes (who was an unknown Belfast reporter at the time) and Peter Skellern (the 1970s pop balladeer) going off to Guernsey to shoot a programme where we learnt how to race a yacht. Mel, who had just got back from Australia after the Americas Cup, was one of the yachtsmen and that is how we met. 

“After a day’s filming we’d all go the pub, have dinner – it sounds weird, but I’d never really done that – and I remember thinking, gosh this is really fun and normal, and I want a bit more of this rather than getting up and putting on a tracksuit and stressing about whether my backhand is working today.

“Mel and I got married six years later, in 1992. Nine months after our honeymoon, Amber was born – she’s 27 now, then came Charlie, 25, and Lily, 23. The children were all taught tennis and play a nice game, which is exactly what I wanted for them, and we sometimes play family doubles, but none of them wanted to be professional tennis players. 

“Over the years, I have done coaching for the LTA but a few years ago they changed the system and wanted to do everything under their brand with no outside providers. In hindsight, it was a huge stress and, with the pandemic, it would have been a nightmare. Mel and I still run our tennis holidays in Portugal – he concentrates on that really. It’s called an academy but it’s not high level and is perfect for holiday makers. Mel has also redesigned our website where we recommend tennis holidays worldwide.”

Chapter Nine: Homeopathy Cured Me

“About 20 years ago, I developed a horrible cyst on an ovary and was in excruciating pain to the point of fainting; I thought I was dying. I had lots of scans and there was talk of an operation when a friend of mine, who is a homeopath, suggested I see Hilery Dorrian who had trained her. I was unsure and a bit sceptical about it all because the pain was so bad, but I went along anyway. She told me she could rid me of the pain, but it wouldn’t be a quick fix and that it would take time for the symptoms to reduce, as she needed to get to the root of what was causing the symptoms. I was given remedies for the ovaries and she also gave me a combination of Chinese herbs to cleanse the liver, as once you do that it balances the hormones. Everything she told me was exactly how it was and, each month, I started not having as much pain, and then less and less, until it completely disappeared. It was just extraordinary and, to this day, I tell everyone who says it’s all mumbo jumbo rubbish that I can only go by my own experience. 

“I keep very fit and run three times a week with friends, followed by coffee. It’s a very nice social group and I always say to women who ask me about fitness that, if you can train with other people, it’s so good for you. You get fresh air, you sweat a bit, you get rid of your pent-up emotions, then you talk – it’s the best therapy going, I swear by it. I am also very keen on my yoga and I do that about four times a week – I love that more than anything.”

Chapter Ten: Our Lockdown Project

“Just after Christmas, Mel and I bought an old DPD van down the road and we’ve been busy converting it into a mobile home. The best man at our wedding, who was a round-the-world yachtsman with Mel, has amazing skills when it comes to building. The interiors are perfect, like a mini home – we have a double bed, little kitchen, beautiful cupboards including a pull-out one for food, a table, a shower and a loo. We are thinking about offering it up to a few TV companies, though timewise that might be difficult, but we’re going to go off in it anyway and might do our own mini version of a TV programme. My dream is to tour to beautiful destinations and do a Zoom yoga session in each with a different type of teacher. Anyway, it’s been a really fun lockdown project.”

The Next Chapter

“For now, I’m happy doing my tennis commentary because I love it – I do pinch myself sometimes as I really enjoy following the tour and watching all the young players coming on, and I feel I can bring experiences of my own. This year has been strange as it’s all been done remotely, of course – the Australian Open, Dubai, Monte Carlo, Madrid. Then there was Roland Garros and Queen’s which will be followed by Eastbourne then Wimbledon – six weeks back to back. After that, I’d quite like to go on holiday, as I do miss the sunshine and being in the sea. We are due to go to Mykonos, but who knows, and if that doesn’t work out we’ll go to Scotland in our van. 

“Looking to the future, I would like to get involved in alternative health, which would probably mean going back to train, because I believe it can really benefit you and that nature knows best. I am fascinated by health and nutrition – there is so much to it and you can really transform someone’s health through nutrition.”

Click here for further details of Annabel Croft Holidays.

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