- Arts & Literature
- Science & Technology
By Matthew Handley
Former British No. 1 tennis player Annabel Croft, and now a commentator for Eurosport and Sky Sports, helps over 300 kids per week learn the sport she considered “soul-destroying” for the loneliness and mentally taxing experience playing for the women’s tour back in the 1980s. While she enjoys running her tennis academies now, life in the sport was not always so positive for the Londoner, who spoke recently at the Oxford Union.
The highly competitive nature of her chosen profession proved especially difficult to manage, explained Croft, who retired at age 21. “Tennis is a very gladiatorial sport,” she said. “It’s very much pitting yourself against your opponent.” She views tennis’s professional ranks as engaging in the “laws of the jungle” in which – to her – athletes consider “everyone a potential enemy…a potential opponent.”
The mental stamina required to play professionally after being the top-ranked junior player in the world, or a “big fish in a small pond,” including being the junior Wimbledon and Australian Open champion, was a tough transition for Croft. “I wish looking back I had been able to cope,” she explained.
For her, “happiness…depended on winning tennis matches.” She continued, “I used to get this terrible fear…stage fright. I couldn’t bear to play in front of people in big stadiums.”
The one-time WTA titlist at San Diego in 1985, however, considers Tour as a “very soulless existence” as a child, especially in connection to her move to the United States after playing Wimbledon at 15 years old. In Houston, Texas, Croft recalls that the “monumental leap” in her practice regiment required “tunnel-vision training” in 80-90 degree heat, with 80% humidity.
Additionally, Croft said she was forced “to give up all subjects in school” in order to succeed in tennis. Having started playing at age nine, she officially left school at age 15 to move to the United States. “I gave up my whole childhood,” she said.
Although lonely back then, today, explained Croft, the money in the sport allows the top players to travel with a “big entourage.” She continued, “It’s like a traveling circus” because of the constant travelling required. For the rest of the athletes struggling to breakthrough from the lower tiers, however, “it’s not all glamour.” Croft discussed the difficulty required in qualifying for tournaments against opponents hungry to enter the main draw of play.
After finding success and being as highly ranked as World No. 21 in 1985 after collecting her only WTA title, Croft faced “enormous pressure” to continue winning and uphold her contracts and sponsorships. Eventually, the stress required her to seek help from psychiatrists, although she already “knew the answer.” Said Croft, “I wasn’t enjoying the life I’d chosen.”
After announcing her retirement, she decided to pursue a career in the media because it “looked quite fun.” Without a degree, but the drive to succeed, the former athlete used her connections and networking to her benefit. Since her early career in entertainment, which included working at magic shows, Croft has appeared in a number of programs, including Treasure Hunt, Interceptor, Celebrity Wrestling, and the 2009 BBC production Famous, Rich and Homeless, which had her living among the homeless while acting the part.
Although she liked the opportunity to “explore what was out there” at first, Croft realized she had to “get back to [her] roots,” meaning a return to tennis. With a media career for over 30 years, she will commentate the French Open later this month, followed by Wimbledon, the tournament she reached the third round of in 1984.
In contrast to the tough mental requirements and her lack of enjoyment competing professionally, Croft’s current relationship with the tennis world is more positive. With three academies in Roehampton, Wimbledon, and in Cyprus, Greece, Croft hopes to keep building a brand and to expand more internationally after initially opening the first site in 2009. She considers sharing her love of the sport with the children, and parents, of her tennis academies a “dream for me because it’s actually taking quite a lot of what I feel is best from what I learned from Tour.”
Her commitment and return to the sport she felt spurned by is remarkable, and her continued involvement with training youngsters suggests a desire to stop other prospects from feeling the same pressures she did.
This interview was provided courtesy of The Oxford Union