We stepped from the warmth of the Giggling Squid out into the now cool dusk April evening.
Thirty minutes later. After a minor wrong turning and a sprint to the convenience store minutes before it closed, two grown men, in their early 60s, are sat on a park type bench, in the dark under the bow of a tree, talking about tennis. The purchase of two chocolate covered ice creams on a stick (Magnum’s for those who need that detail) successfully completed. No thought given (until later) as to whether this is normal behaviour in this quiet residential area, on the generous grassy verge at the corner of the street.
Between crunching chocolate and savouring the soft ice cream beneath, the conversation, which had begun before the waiter in the Giggling Squid informed us, that our preferred desserts were not available, continues…….
We are sharing our thoughts on the two days of competition we have just enjoyed at the ITF English Indoor Seniors Championships at Gosling Sports Park, Welwyn Garden City, Hertfordshire. Not a win between us. Good efforts in our respective singles matches and edged out on the match tie break in the doubles.
The talk is not of disappointment. It is positive and of the future, what we need to improve, what we did well and where we will play next. There is a moment of quiet contemplation, while ice creams are licked clean from their sticks. Wrappers and sticks are then deposited in the nearby bin; behaviour very much in keeping with the neighbourhood! We stroll the now familiar route back to our B&B.
While the purpose is to play the best tennis we can, it feels important to embrace the fullness of the adventure. You can’t predict these moments, just be ready when they present themselves to enjoy them.
Our work here is done. Thank you Welwyn Garden City, we had a great time. Ahead, an early start for the long drive to Cornwall after breakfast in the morning.
Just two days earlier we had made the long journey from Cornwall.
The journey to Welwyn Garden City (WGC) takes just under seven hours with two stops at relaxed pace and we gauged the M25 pretty well, avoiding rush hour hold ups.
We are staying at a local B&B just ten minutes walk from the tennis centre at Gosling Sports Park. Incidentally I used to work at the sports park, some thirty years ago, it feels strange to be going back there now.
The tournament referee replies to my late evening message, confirming a morning practice court and signs off with “Good Night” Nice touch, makes me smile.
8am practice court. Relaxed and hitting well. Warmed up with emphasis on smoothness and spin on the serve. Back to B&B for breakfast, chat to Terry and his wife Chris, our hosts.
I had some inkling that this would be an interesting place to stay, after I informed our host Terry that we would be playing in the ITF seniors tennis tournament. Terry replied to inform me that he had played against Fred Perry in 1951 at the Festival of Britain, held in the vicinity of where the London Eye now stands. A surrey junior tennis champion and national table tennis champion as well as being a member of the squash team that were national champions. We were in the company of sporting genius.
Maybe the years have dimmed the memory of the effort required to hit those sporting heights. However phrases like “as I got a bit better I started playing national competitions” as if it were a foregone conclusion. I could not help but be envious, when compared to my own modest 99% sweat 1% inspiration efforts.
Over breakfast the stories began to flow. Around the table, Terry, Michelle recently arrived from South Africa, (with her own fascinating story), John C the other aspiring seniors tennis player and myself. We were quickly made aware that Terry had run a sports promotions business for many years. Now in his early eighties the delight and enjoyment from his working days and sport in general shone through.
We were transported back to 1970, the first world cup after England had won the trophy in 1966. England are defending champions.
Terry picks up the story “I said to Alf, Sir Alf Ramsey, that is”
“Alf what are we doing to promote the 1970 World Cup effort”
” I think we need to get on with some promotional activity so that people can get behind the team for this year’s World Cup”
“What do you have in mind, Terry” replied Sir Alf
“Well why don’t we start with a photograph of the whole squad. I have contacts with Shredded Wheat who have their HQ here in WGC. I will go and talk to the MD and see if they would like to support the world cup effort in some way”
A few weeks later at a venue in the South of England the world cup squad gathered for their promotional photograph. I imagine a warm sunny morning, with little breeze and the England player’s milling casually around.
Terry approaches Sir Alf “Have we got everyone here Alf?”
“We’re missing three at the moment, including Peter Bonetti (one of the goalkeepers)” replies Sir Alf
After a few minutes wait and some frantic phone calls, it is confirmed that three players cannot make it for the photo shoot. (A near calamity in pre digital days)
I imagine Terry’s furrowed brow and quick thinking about how to resolve the situation. An urgent call to the agency handling the photographic work and ….
“Tell you what Alf, I’ll put on Peter Bonetti’s jersey and my partner and his son will put on the jerseys’ of the other two players, if that is ok with you? I have confirmed with the agency that we can get the missing players in for individual photos and we can then superimpose their heads onto the original photograph. It’s a bit of an expensive process mind, but no one will be able to tell that they were not here in person!” (Remember this is a pre digital era photographs are captured on film)
Sir Alf’s response is not recorded.
Great story I am thinking, a bit of a tall story maybe? Not a bit of it, Terry flourishes the original photograph with him wearing Peter Bonetti’s jersey in the England 1970 squad photograph! Sat around the breakfast table we are all smiling.
The stories continue to flow and pictures of well known personalities from football and beyond are served up as verification. Eventually excusing ourselves from the breakfast table, it’s time for a bit of quiet time before departing for our matches.
We agree on quiet rest for an hour. The twin room arrangement seems to be working out. It’s very quiet. I am not settled. I remember that I need to relace my tread worn match shoes, perfect for indoor acrylic courts. The noise of the opening the zip on my bag, sounds like a train coming through. Followed by the zzzrrp noise as I pull the laces through the eye holes of my shoes. I do it more slowly so as not to disturb the silence too much. Forgot to regrip my racket, but otherwise all good. I eventually manage about twenty minutes rest.
Perfect preparation, without the usual everyday errands to fit in on normal days before matches. Preparation was topped off by Terry insisting on driving us to the venue in his vintage estate car with wood panelled interior. Chauffered to the tournament in style!
Pre match warm up. Found a quiet space outside to run through my warm up and get my tactics in my head. Movement and placement. Movement and placement, I repeat to myself.
3-6, 3-6 Lost to Chaz Kahn (No 7 seed)
Score progression 3-3, 3-6 / 2-2, 2-4, 3-4, 3-6
Good performance. For the most part, reduced errors, didn’t give away too many short balls. Put the ball away positively when I had the chance. Remain slow and indecisive on moves to the net. Was passed twice down the line after good approach shots.
There was though something different here today. Nerves were present but surpressed and able to be used for a positive approach from the first point. Two double faults in my first service game, but still managed to hold. I was here to win. At no point did I consider I was beaten until the last ball hit the net. Feels like progress.
There are now a number of familiar faces around the venue. Some good conversations. Feeling more like I belong.
During my match I had noticed our host Terry watching from the balcony and as we were on adjacent courts he could watch us both. Later back at the B&B, Terry was very complimentary about my acknowledged of my opponents good shots.
While it was nice to receive a compliment, I was less ready and receptive at the time to what followed. Terry ever the competitor, had some tactical pointers for me about how I could have played certain points better. I was then gobsmacked, yes I think that is the right word. Terry had videoed parts of my match, which backed up his assessment. Terry, please accept my apologies if I seemed less than receptive at the time, of your coaching points. I have now reviewed your comments and they were spot on. I will try and take them on board.
My response to Terry at the time, I think holds good. What might seem like an easy and obvious shot to your eyes and with your talent, might just be beyond my ability. But I promise to try.
8am practice court. Relaxed and hitting well. Player on the next court asked if I always hit the ball this hard in matches? I was unaware that I was hitting the ball particularly hard just trying to be smooth and let the racket do the work.
Doubles match. It’s a close loss 7-5, 3-6, 5-10.
Our opponents had also lost in the first round of the singles. An even contest then, in which we tightened up as the match progressed. Credit to opponent who became much more proactive at the net and started intercepting effectively.
Defeat means we miss the chance to play the number one seeds, but on the positive side, we get to drive home before the bank holiday weekend! Every cloud and all that.
7.30am run. Beautiful sunny morning. Run along the grassy thoroughfare that runs through the centre of this Garden City with its beautiful fountain, catching the early morning sunlight. Ran to Gosling thinking I might stick my nose in to the old leisure centre or do a lap of the running track. For old times sake. Sign says, centre closed Police training in progress and the track is fenced off. How about the clay courts – door locked. The proximity to the ski hill was tempting, so almost inevitably I run to the top of the hill. Discovered quickly that running on ski matting is a danger to ones ankles so climbed the steep hill on the strip of grass between the slope and the t-bar matting. What a view from the top, Hertfordshire laid out before me on this fantastic spring morning.
After descending I found the back door to the centre open and tournament director drinking coffee getting ready for the day ahead. I thanked him for a good tournament and thoughts he had shared on how Newquay can make its forthcoming first ITF event in September as good as possible.
The two stop journey back to Cornwall passes without incident, the only surprise being the low level of traffic so close to the bank holiday. And thanks to John C for his company and putting up with me for four days!
Postscript: Friday 8am. Lesson with Woody. He says I am hitting the ball better than ever!
And on we go ……………..