Claire Curran: 'Walking out on to the court at Wimbledon was a dream ... but it got the better of me'
With Wimbledon well under way, Karen Ireland finds out what it is really like to play at one of the world's top tennis clubs. Here, she talks to Northern Ireland-born player Claire Curran about taking on the Williams sisters and her new role as commentator at SW19.
Life has changed dramatically for Belfast-born tennis player Claire Curran. In what was once normally her busiest and most-anticipated month when she got to play on her favourite court, now, instead of chasing a ball around, she is rushing between school runs as we catch up.
Claire (39) is married to Michael Haslett, a former Ulster rugby player, who now works in finance in London, and the pair are proud parents to three daughters, Romaine (7), Samantha (5) and Harper (2).
"Life has certainly changed, but it is now exciting in different ways," reflects Claire, who lives in Surrey with her young family.
The gifted tennis player is one of the few people who got to fulfil her childhood dream of playing at Wimbledon.
"That's all I ever wanted to do from the age of eight years old when I first started playing tennis," she says.
Not bad for someone whose last professional game at Wimbledon was against Grand Slam tennis titans Serena and Venus Williams in a doubles match.
But Claire is not missing out entirely on the action at the world-famous grass courts, as this year finds her in the relatively new role of commentator for Radio Wimbledon and Wimbledon TV.
"I have been looking forward to doing the commentary and felt very excited about this new challenge," she says.
"I hope they like the Northern Irish accent and, more importantly, understand what I'm saying," she jokes.
She has recently taken a step back from her role as a national coach to concentrate on her young family, but is determined to squeeze in some consultancy broadcasting work too.
As the youngest of four children, Claire says she loved all sports, describing herself as a tomboy. But, as her parents played tennis (her dad is Edmund Curran, a former Editor of the Belfast Telegraph and now occasional columnist for the newspaper) she found herself constantly lifting a racquet from the age of seven.
Claire recalls: "I won my first tournament when I was eight and I think then mum realised I had a talent for the sport as, at that stage, I hadn't even had a lesson. I had just been messing around on the court.
"I really appreciated being given the gift of lessons and was determined from the beginning to make the most of every second and learn as much as possible.
"Tennis is an individual sport and it can be lonely at times, but I knew I had to practice every day.
"Growing up, that meant making sacrifices, but I never saw it like that as this was always something I wanted to do.
"When my friends were out playing or going to junior discos, I would be practising tennis on the court or having lessons. But it was something I did willingly as I loved it. It wasn't easy, but it was a good life. By the time I was 12, I was the Irish No. 1 at tennis and squash. I just loved sport.
"I then started getting selected to play in tournaments in Europe and I would spend my summers travelling, which was a great privilege. Sport gave me so many opportunities that I will never forget."
With political tensions in Northern Ireland at their height when she was 15, Claire moved to Dublin, where she played under an Irish teaching programme and travelled the ITF (International Tennis Federation) junior circuit, playing at junior Wimbledon in 1996. She attained a singles ranking inside the top 100 and became the youngest person to have represented Ireland in the Fed Cup.
"All this time I had my eye on Wimbledon and was watching the greats like Martina Navratilova and Hana Mandlikova playing and thinking 'one day I want to be there'. I always watched the finals with my parents," she says.
"By 18 I was thinking about turning professional, but there is no funding in Northern Ireland and I certainly wasn't going to put that kind of pressure on my parents. They had already sacrificed and given enough to the four of us growing up."
As luck would have it, and right at the time she needed to make her next move, Claire was awarded a scholarship to the University of California to study politics.
By this stage she was playing in top form and took part in an amateur championship, which she won and which awarded her a wild card to the US Open in 2000.
"I remember my mum being so worried about me, as I was drawn against some of the top names of the time. But she hadn't seen me play for some time, so she didn't know how strong my game was. I actually won the first set of the big match and everyone was shocked; but then I think the pressure of the big event got to me and I lost my nerve."
After this Claire decided her main strength - and the way forward - was as a doubles player. However, she was forced to have major hip surgery which set her back, and spent the next 24 months in rehab.
"It was a long, difficult road back to recovery. Afterwards, however, I made the commitment to move to England, which would be my new base to live and train.
"The awkward thing with playing doubles is you can't stay with the same partner all the time. You must keep changing.
"You get used to how one player gels with you and you work well together - and then it's time to move on. I found that difficult."
Ranked among the top 100 doubles players in the world and one of the top British players, Claire's talent shone through and eventually came the news she had been waiting for since she was eight years old - she had made the main draw at Wimbledon in 2004.
"I can't even find words to describe how that felt or what it meant to me," she recalls. "It was like everything I had worked toward was finally coming together and all the years of hard work had paid off.
"Walking out on to that court was like a dream for me and something I will never forget. Nor will I ever take getting the opportunity to play there for granted, it simply meant the world to me."
Claire reveals that her only regret is that the magnitude of the situation affected her play and she was overwhelmed by where she was and the famous courts she was playing on.
Still, she made the draw for the following three years and played against some of the big names, including her idol Navratilova and the Williams sisters.
"I think that is my only regret in my tennis career - I let the occasion and the venue get the better of me. That is the one thing I have always admired about Rory McIlroy; he just goes out and plays all these great courses and is himself. He never lets it take over," she says.
"Looking back, Wimbledon just meant so much to me. It was the be-all and end-all.
"My advice to anyone now would be to just approach it like another tournament. That is what I would do now."
By this stage Claire was 29 and at a good place both professionally and personally. She met her now-husband Michael when he was playing rugby for Ulster and she was back home in Belfast. He then moved to London and played for the London Irish and the pair married.
"I was starting to think about having a family, so I retired and began coaching and then we were blessed when the girls came along," says Claire.
"There is so much travel involved in sport and particularly in tennis. It is difficult to stay in it at that level when you become a mum, as no one wants to be away from their family for that amount of time. Family comes first and I love being a mum."
As a member of Wimbledon, Claire still plays on the hallowed grass courts and she is delighted that her girls have started to pick up their racquets and show an interest in the sport.
"I am really enjoying Wimbledon fortnight. What could be better? I get to talk about the thing I love all day," she says.
"Sport is a good career. It has always been very good to me and I'll always be thankful for the opportunities I've had."