Annabel Croft knows how the professional sport is incredibly harsh on players
Annabel Croft tries to tot up in her head how much her body has changed between now, at the age of 50, and when she was a teenager playing on the elite professional tennis circuit. “I was big. I am almost three stone lighter now than when I played tennis. Which is quite a lot, and now I look back and know what to put it down to.”
We pause for a moment. Almost three stone lighter? Yes, Croft looks very fit, totally wears-leather-trousers-without-embarrassing-her-teenage-daughters fit. However my vague memory of her 1980s reign as the No 1 British women’s tennis player was that she was always a bit of a hottie, in that jolly and posh way of a bygone age of the sport. We thought we knew Croft. She was called Annabel, after all, a home counties girl sprung from a John Betjeman poem.
I am about to be surprised again. I start talking about food issues in women’s tennis — Monica Seles, for example, who recently revealed that she binge-ate to cope with the pressure. Tennis, Croft explains, has little of the barley-water civility its public image projects. Nothing like the barley-water civility she in particular projects.
It is a sadistic, masochistic, dark, lonely place where players’ friends, family and their mental health are often sacrificed. Croft barely had an education, didn’t spend Christmas with her family from the age of 12 and left home at 15 for a life on the circuit that was nasty, brutal and short. She may have smiled for the cameras but the darkness was within. She says: “I definitely got bigger and bigger and bigger, and a lot of it was unhappiness. I look back now and think it’s obvious what was going on there.”
Andre Agassi surprised his fans when he wrote in his autobiography: “I hate tennis, hate it with a dark and secret passion and always have.” Croft was not surprised. She is having her Agassi moment. “It was very dark, but I identified with everything he talked about in that book,” she says. “I reckon most tennis players completely agree. He didn’t enjoy this whole process, he hated it.”
When she describes what is required of girls to reach the top of the sport, it could hardly be a better recipe for breakdown. Croft was separated from her peers at a young age. She moved to a foreign country and was subjected to physical demands marked out by their relentlessness — few sports require players to compete and push themselves to their limits day after day. That is before we get to the on-court mind games. She convinces me that tennis is the most punishing of sports.
Croft didn’t break down, she quit instead. “For me, when I got to about 20 I started to question the whole thing. It was like, ‘Is this what I want in my life, this antagonistic lifestyle?’ ”
Tennis is like an argument — your ego against someone else’s
I meet Croft as the US Open is drawing to a close and Andy Murray is rising high. Croft is commentating for the only channel with the UK rights, Eurosport. She wants to sit out in the fresh air for a while because later she will be in the dark studio for hours, so we talk squidged together on a bench. When commentating on the current crop of players, she says she sees what the public do not: their suffering. “The public who watch Wimbledon every year and see all the glamour don’t realise,” she says.
And for the next hour in the sunshine she says horribly bleak things about her youth with a briskly British lack of self-pity. This can be confusing. How was it never being with her family for Christmas from the age of 12? “I remember being in tears on the phone,” she says brightly. “When I was very little: 12, 13 or 14. Being upset.”
Croft’s entire life hinged on the moment when she picked up a tennis racket on holiday at the age of nine, just for fun. “Since then my life feels as though it’s been on fast-forward at a million miles an hour.” The pressure of her late-emerging talent felt like it had its own momentum. Three years later she had won a national championship and was already living like a semi-professional.
“You become accelerated into adulthood from a very young age. I was meeting agents and dealing with endorsement deals and corporate events. I compare it to my kids, hanging out with their mates, and I realise only now how different my youth was.”
Croft went to West Heath, Princess Diana’s former school (now closed down), where she says they didn’t care much about academics, or about sport. At 15, she decided to quit school, which she was barely attending, and move to Houston by herself. I query this. Didn’t her nice, middle-class, non-tennis-nut Kent family think she was too young? No, she says, she was driven to succeed. And her father, an international businessman, knew enough to know that she had to be out of the UK.
“He didn’t think the opportunities were there for me in this country. I do think he was right. I look back at Houston and think: ‘That is where I made the most progress in my rankings, the biggest improvements.’ I wouldn’t have done that if I had stayed here.”
Most British players are forced to train outside of the UK, but Houston seems a very long way away. Croft says she lived in the home of her coach and his wife for the next six years and barely returned to the UK. “The tennis courts were opposite his house. Every day was spent training in 80 per cent humidity for five hours or so to the point that you felt sick. At the time there was this enormous amount of pressure on me. I’d been the youngest British player at Wimbledon for 95 years or something.”
Although this “unusual” set-up was ostensibly her base, as a member of the circuit she travelled nearly constantly between January and November. “I never had a Christmas at home for most of my youth.” Who would she celebrate Christmas with? She looks blank. She would be staying somewhere near a tournament on her own. When she wasn’t playing tennis she would be organising flights and accommodation for the next block of competitions. This remains the life of those in the lower seeds of the pro circuit.
“I can remember waiting at Greyhound bus stations, some really dodgy place at 3am, thinking, ‘Oh my God, if my parents knew I was doing this.’ I look back on all that — I was about 16 — and think, ‘How on Earth?’ ”
This travel, however, was what she relished, compared with the “absolute ruthlessness of the tour life”. Can you have friends on the tour? “On the tour you can’t have friends.” Surely, I say, you get to know everyone? Locker-room camaraderie? She shakes her head.
“It is quite cut-throat. There were a few I used to practise with more, but then you get drawn against them in a tournament and think, ‘Oh God, now where do we stand?’ You’ve just offloaded all your emotions to each other about how tough you’re finding it, and suddenly they’re an enemy.” In the way Croft describes it, tennis is a martial art. The mental ordeal is what makes it “such a good spectator sport”.
“It is unbelievably tough psychologically. There is nowhere to hide. Your psyche is out on display for everyone. And you have to keep going again and again. Tennis matches are like having an argument, your ego against someone else’s. If you win the argument today, you have to have another one tomorrow. It is exhausting emotionally. Your happiness is dependent on winning or losing a tennis match.”
To survive in tennis, she says, psychologists now work closely with players to get their “head around this antagonistic situation and try and enjoy it. It’s hard.”
So she didn’t have any friends for most of her youth? “I get asked the most often, ‘Why did you stop at 21?’ I think because I wanted friends.” Here she laughs, a British, self-deprecating laugh, but it sounds painful. “I wanted to have a normal life.”
Up until that point her life had been abnormal, solitary and punishing, but Croft says that she desperately wanted it. Until she didn’t. Now she couldn’t be happier. She gets great pleasure from seeing her three children live their normal teenage years and uses their education to help to supplement hers.
She says: “Tennis is hammering on the body, pounding on these hard surfaces, and it’s not like you play a match at the end of a week like a footballer. If you win you can play every day. Oh my goodness, it’s one of the harshest of sports.” So Croft has taken care to balance her TV career with yoga three or four times a week, which she credits with restoring her body, and yes, some tennis, a sport that she has loved more the less she has played it.
Would she wish a tennis career on young people? “It’s a very tough life,” she says. When she sees tennis-mad parents pushing their child, “sometimes I think they have no concept of what lies ahead”. She adds: “I know the pathway ahead and I wonder, if they knew, would they want that for their children? But still, people mustn’t regret what they didn’t do.”
Does she look back with fond memories? That, she says, is the wrong word. “I have a lot of amazing memories of situations, matches, upset, deep soul-searching and real angst, but also of ‘Wow, what a life!’ To travel so young, to experience so much. I’m very lucky.”