University tennis: the start of a lifelong love

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Professional tennis is often visualised as a sport of solitude. Its emotional zeniths are captured in snapshots of superstars collapsed to their knees on hallowed turf, tears streaming down their face, hands clasped in thanks to the heavens.

A singles player must weather the physical and spiritual storm of a match alone; there are no team huddles, no substitutes, no places to hide, and no pitch invasions upon the attainment of glory. The silence can be chilling in the moments preceding the bloodrush of a rally.

Yet the university version of tennis is slightly different. Each match is part of a larger tie against a rival university, with the team relying on several players to win their matches to claim overall victory, like in the Davis Cup. It is this team format, with friends cheering you on from just metres away and ready to lay everything on the line for you in their own match, that makes university-level tennis more relational and synergetic than the game we see on television.

Durham is fortunate enough to have the best university tennis club in the country, consistently winning national titles. The professionalism, humbleness and dedication found at the top of the club is shared with the ranks below, creating a culture of shared knowledge and devotion to improving every single player. Every member of the club counts.

Durham is fortunate enough to have the best university tennis club in the country, consistently winning national titles.

“The great thing about tennis here is not just that we have truly exceptional players at the top end, but that we have a great breadth of opportunities for people of all levels and experience,” says Rob Brasington, captain of the men’s team.

“We have a number of postgraduates on tennis scholarships who have a chance of making the professional circuit, but what strikes me is that they have so much time for everybody else. Even if you have a tiny technical question, they’re there to answer it and are really invested in helping you improve your tennis.”

Indeed, postgraduate scholars agree to spend time coaching those at the lower levels when they join Durham. One such player to bring his expertise here in recent years was Finn Tearney, who chose to continue his tennis education at Durham in 2018-19 after reaching an ATP ranking of 356th in late 2016. Brasington remembers him as an excellent tennis player, though it sounds like Tearney would be better suited to medieval sword fighting. “His serve could take your head off! He was so sharp it was almost scary.”

The level of commitment from some of Durham’s players is exemplary. Undergraduate Olivia French, who competed for the Women’s 1s and 2s last year, trained for roughly 25 hours per week last season to retain her level. Meanwhile, Brasington commutes to Newcastle to work as a tennis coach for 40 hours per week on top of his own playing commitments and degree. But somehow, they shrug off such diligence as if it were no big deal, with Brasington humbly conceding that, “maybe it is a lot of tennis when you think about it, but I wouldn’t have my life any other way.”

The club is structured in such a way that anybody can join. At the lowest end of the University’s tennis structure is the Development Squad, which itself is comprised of three tiers, catering people who have never picked up a racket to people  aiming to make one of the University teams.

Club President outlined her hopes to expand the reach of tennis at Durham. “The Development Squad is something that I really want to push this year. It’s enjoyable and even at that level you get a taste of top-standard coaching.

“I would also encourage people to look at college tennis. Tennis is one of the safest sports to play during Covid-19 and I really hope the University promotes it because it’s a healthy and fun option for everyone.”

“Tennis is one of the safest sports to play during Covid-19 and I really hope the University promotes it because it’s a healthy and fun option for everyone.”

Due to the pandemic, the club was not able to hold its pre- season training, and there will be less training sessions during Michaelmas term. French says that she has been cycling to Newcastle and Sunderland just to get back into practising on court, but preliminary plans suggest all the hard pedalling won’t be in vain: Epiphany Term should bring the return of university tennis’ top leagues for such determined players to compete in.

All three make clear that university tennis really is what the individual makes of it. For the diehard athletes aiming for the sky, all the resources are laid out to mirror a professional environment: training sessions most days of the week, fitness classes, strength and conditioning sessions, and also sports psychology consultations.

For those who can’t or don’t want to commit so heavily, the option is there to train less. And all members are welcomed as part of the club socially, which extends beyond meals and nights out on Wednesdays.

Olivia French praises the multi-faceted benefits of being involved with the tennis club. “You don’t really realise the full impact of making friends. It’s nice to have more people to say hi to in the street. I came to pre-season last year not knowing anybody, but we bonded so quickly and it was comforting to start term with a huge circle of friendly faces. I’ve even had older players doing the same degree give me notes and help with my subject, so you can actually benefit academically from joining!

“You can play tennis for life if you start now. At my club away from Durham there are people still playing who are 70, even 80, and they’re meeting new people all the time. You can join any club in the world as long as you pick up a racquet.”

Perhaps it is the romance of a possible lifelong hobby which is most entrancing. Tennis does not have to be the frenetic, adrenalin-filled scramble that breathes sweat through our television screens. Picture yourself 50 years from now having a leisurely game in the sun-kissed Italian countryside, the promise of a barbecue enlivening your creaking muscles (and perhaps making you rush your serve), surrounded by Durham friends. You have aged like a fine wine.

Image: Durham University Lawn Tennis Club.

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