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'It may look glam and sexy but a tennis player's life is hard work... yet it makes for great fiction'

In her new novel, Lauren Weisberger gives the world of women's tennis the Devil Wears Prada treatment. She tells Hannah Stephenson about delving behind the scenes of the exciting and enigmatic sport

Published 06/07/2016

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There's always plenty of drama on court during Wimbledon, but bestselling American author Lauren Weisberger has been busy finding out what goes on behind the scenes of the women's professional tennis circuit.

Immersing herself in the sport for eight months, she attended tournaments including Wimbledon and the US Open, wangled her way into players' lounges, dining areas and stringing rooms, interviewed players and eavesdropped on conversations.

"I was lucky enough to get a glimpse behind the scenes, in all the areas where the players were off court," she says.

How did she gain access to these private places?

"Contacts introduced me to friends of friends. The president of the Women's Tennis Association (Micky Lawler) opened so many doors for me and introduced me to so many people."

Weisberger, who was four when her father first put a racket into her hand and still plays tennis as a pastime, says she wasn't viewed with suspicion, and the access allowed her to see the pressures, rivalries, strict diets and superstitions that are all part and parcel of the game at this level.

The result is her new novel The Singles Game, the story of professional player Charlotte "Charlie" Silver, who is taken under the wing of a brutal coach to help her reach the top.

She is simultaneously launched into a world of private parties, stylists and secret dates with high-profile playboys, before becoming embroiled in a drugs scandal.

Weisberger is quick to point out that her plot is in no way related to the Maria Sharapova scandal.

"The book was at the printer by the time all of that came out. It was a stunning coincidence," says the writer, who was born in Pennsylvania and now lives in Connecticut with her husband and two children. "But drug-testing plays a big part in the book, because they are subjected to stringent drug-testing. Every player has to name one hour a day, 365 days a year when they make themselves available to be drug-tested."

Women's tennis may be a different setting from the cut-throat world of fashion she described 13 years ago in her bestselling debut novel The Devil Wears Prada - loosely based on her 10-month stint at Vogue magazine as an assistant to editor-in-chief Anna Wintour, which was made into a film starring Meryl Streep and Anne Hathaway - but there are similarities, the 39-year-old reflects.

"I loved the idea that we know these women and admire them because of this interesting cross-over of fashion and celebrity with tennis, more so than with any other sport," Weisberger enthuses.

"When you say Venus, Serena, Maria, one-word names, we know exactly who you are talking about and I thought that was really interesting, not just because they are pretty faces on the red carpet, but really because of what they've accomplished.

"It's a world that may look glamorous and sexy from the outside, to be a professional tennis player on tour, going to the player parties and being in a different exotic location every week or two, but it's really hard work.

"Similarly to The Devil Wears Prada, I was hoping to give readers a glimpse of what it might look like from behind the scenes. If there is bitchiness, I didn't see it. Of course, there are going to be rivalries and friendships, but it makes for good fiction."

Among the players she interviewed was Slovakian Daniela Hantuchova, once ranked number five in the world and now a tour veteran.

"One of the things that surprised me was how long the season is, how often they are on the road and how much they travel. They play 10 out of every 12 months."

While top male players often have wives and children in tow, women players often simply don't have a personal life if they want to do well in their sport.

"When you look at the top 10 seeded women, none of them is married and none of them has children," Weisberger observes. "It's not the same for the men. The majority are married and close to half of them are fathers.

"Part of it is straightforward biology; being an elite athlete and bearing children are sometimes mutually exclusive, but I do think the women often have to choose to delay that part of their lives until later. Some of these players don't even keep homes, because they are always travelling."

She admits that body image also matters to the viewing public.

"We all seem to spend an extraordinary amount of time talking about what everyone's wearing and how they are looking. There's more pressure on the women in that arena. I'm not sure how it matters to the players themselves. But women bear the brunt of that, even off court.

"Unfortunately it's not surprising. It's the same across every industry. It's not new and not specific to tennis players."

Some of the women do form close friendships, despite the rivalry on court.

"Of course there is fierce competition, but look at Serena Williams and Caroline Wozniacki - they are self-declared super-close friends. They've competed a huge number of times and battled it out all the time.

"But it's a solitary sport. You are out there alone, without a team, without a coach. Just the player."

In the novel, the coach secretly arranges for Charlie to be in a room next door to a top male player - with whom she has a number of romantic trysts - to raise her profile (romance between players has long been a media magnet).

In reality, Weisberger reckons it's hard to maintain relationships of any sort.

"It's hard to keep in touch with family, friends or romantic partners, given that level of travel and the unpredictability of it. They don't know if they are going to be knocked out of the tournament the first day, or if they're going to be in it for a week or two. They often don't know where they are going next, or when they'll get there."

But there have been memorable tennis romances through the years - Steffi Graf and Andre Agassi; Chris Evert and Jimmy Connors; Maria Sharapova and Grigor Dimitrov.

"So many of them have come up together, playing as juniors, and have known each other since they were children. I don't know how much mystery there is left. But it does happen sometimes, right?"

These days, Weisberger plays tennis once a week with her husband, who has taken up the game.

"He's improved dramatically in the past year, which is almost starting to worry me," she says, chuckling. "But I can still beat him - and that's the important thing."

The Singles Game by Lauren Weisberger is published by HarperCollins, £7.99

Belfast Telegraph

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