Are these the future stars of Centre Court? Meet the parents courting success
As Wimbledon begins today, Lee Henry talks to the mums and dads of Northern Ireland’s up-and-coming tennis players. Here they say how they are willing to commit their lives and spend thousands to help their child become the next Serena Williams or Andy Murray.
'Karola can make history as NI's top player'
Taxi driver Leonard Bejenaru (50) lives in Belfast with his wife Anca (48) and daughters Arthemis (25) and Karola (20). He says:
I moved to Northern Ireland from Romania in 2001 to support my family. Although we had a peaceful life with our friends and family there, it was a financial struggle and we had to look for better opportunities elsewhere.
Karola started playing at five in Braila, Romania. She continued when she moved to Northern Ireland in 2007, at the Ulster Tennis Academy. She didn't know any English when she first arrived, so it was very hard for her to communicate with her coaches and friends, but I helped her out and always tried to support her.
I'm a very proud dad. I talk about her to pretty much everyone. I've been watching Karola grow and improve over all these years. She always works hard, putting in 100% all the time. When she was little, I saw a sparkle in her and I knew that she would be a good player.
Karola is a very happy, cheerful and optimistic person and has developed into a hard-working and ambitious young woman. She is very committed and focused when it comes to training and competing, which amounts to most of her time nowadays.
I think it's safe to say that her ambition is our motivation to keep hoping and to give everything that we have to see her living the dream.
I've travelled with Karola since she was a junior. We travelled by car as it was cheaper.
Now she is an adult and travels by herself most of the time. Her favourite players are Rodger Federer and Serena Williams (left). She met them and saw them play at Wimbledon two years ago. They were very nice and keen to talk with her.
Wimbledon is our favourite competition and even if we cannot be there this year, we will watch it closely. It is inspiring for us to see the top players competing in the best tennis competition. We always have something to learn, something to aspire to.
In the future we want to keep Karola's level high and make sure that she keeps improving.
I want to focus 100% on Karola's career. I want her to become Northern Ireland's first WTA (Women's Tennis Association) number one player. I believe we can make history."
‘Tennis is an investment of time and money’
Shirley McCracken (49) lives in Bangor with her husband Michael (49) and sons Harry (15) and Johnny (13). She says:
It is busy for our boys, juggling training with school and other sporting commitments. However, I much prefer that to them having nothing to do.
Harry and Johnny both started playing tennis aged five on Saturday mornings at Ward Park in Bangor.
They gradually progressed to individual lessons with Alex Watt and weekday squads at the AGP Tennis Team in Comber and they also attend a weekend squad with the Ulster Tennis Academy.
In the past, both boys have qualified for nationals, which were great achievements.
Johnny reached number three in Ireland U-12 boys last year and also played a tournament at Rafael Nadal’s academy in Madrid.
The boys would like to achieve their potential both on a local and a national level, and possibly to play ETAs also.
First and foremost, though, I would like them to be happy and fulfilled and apply themselves fully to their chosen careers.
The biggest challenge as a tennis mum is trying to fit it all in and get there on time, while the biggest rewards are the friendships we have all made through the sport and the fun they both have at tournaments.
I do not feel that we have had to make sacrifices at this stage.
The boys maintain a good balance between a number of sports and spending time with friends.
It is an investment in both time and money, but the advantages of being involved in the sport far outweigh the negatives.”
‘There’s a lot of driving and cheap hotels’
Amanda Leeman (45) lives in Belfast with her husband Steven (46), daughter Jessica (17) and son Dylan (14). She says:
Both Jessica and Dylan showed an interest in tennis from around the age of three as both my husband Steven and I play at our local club, Hawarden, in Belfast. The club is behind our house and can be reached from a gate at the bottom of the garden, so from babies they were brought up around tennis courts.
Their godfather Jim Watt has been coaching them since they were about four or five, and they progressed through the Ulster squads and were then asked to train in the Irish National Tennis Academy in Dublin.
As a tennis mum working three days a week as a software developer, I’m run off my feet most of the time. Steven works for Translink and we both try to share the load.
Currently, Jessica and Dylan train 20 hours a week over six days, with Dylan training in Dublin for three of those days and Jessica there for two, so there is a lot of driving and staying in cheap hotels.
The biggest challenges are keeping on top of who has to be where and when. Keeping track of what tournaments have been entered, the travel arrangements, booking flights and anything else that needs done can be difficult. Also, just keeping the house ticking over is the hardest thing as we are always out so much.
Time as a family becomes precious because we are rarely in the same place at the same time, and money is always a worry. It’s an expensive sport, especially as we have two children trying to compete at the top level. But the rewards are seeing the enjoyment our children get from the sport and watching their confidence grow through their involvement in competition.
A highlight for us so far was watching Dylan winning the Irish Open U-12 singles, representing Ireland and winning the U-12 Tri-Nnations in Scotland in 2015. He has also just been selected to represent Ireland in the U-14 European Junior Championships in the Czech Republic.
Jessica winning the U-16 doubles and mixed events at the Irish Open and making the final of the singles at the same event was also special.
She also won the U-18 National Matchplays this year and was picked as a Barclays ball-kid for the ATP Masters finals at the O2 in London in November. She was on court with some of the world’s top players, including Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray.
As a mum, I feel delighted for them. All the hard work they put in during the year — while missing out on other things with their friends — is beginning to pay off for them.
I still play tennis and have represented Ulster at junior and veteran levels. I also played hockey for Victorians in the senior league. Steven plays tennis as well and represented Ireland along with my sister Wendy Cree at the Veteran Four Nations championship this year.
As for the future, Jessica is currently working towards a tennis scholarship in the States after she sits her A-levels next year.
Dylan would ultimately like to be a professional tennis player. We’re happy to support them as much as we can in whatever they want to do, whether it be tennis-related or not.
On the rare occasions that we are all together, we love to take our dog for walks at the beach or nearby forest park, or even just watch TV together.
We very much look forward to Wimbledon every year. However, we all support different players, which makes for a very lively atmosphere.”
‘We are hoping to get a European ranking’
Brian McCrum (61) lives in Belfast with his wife Tatiana (46) and daughter Rachel (13). He says:
Rachel started playing ‘red ball’ tennis at David Lloyd’s Belfast Tennis Club as a bit of fun when she was five. She enjoyed it and just kept on going.
She began one-to-one coaching sessions aged six and participated in squads for emerging talented players.
She then joined the Ulster Tennis Academy for about two years, before moving to her present coach, Gordon Watt and the AGP Academy run by Paul, Alex and Gordon Watt.
The biggest challenge as a tennis parent is finding time to ensure that Rachel gets to coaching, which is five days a week, and is able to participate in tournaments. These tend to be week-long affairs, with the majority of the top tournaments taking place in Dublin.
Last year, Rachel played 11 individual tournaments, one in Ulster, eight in the Republic and two in Mallorca.
Obviously that entailed a substantial time and financial commitment for us as parents. But the rewards are watching some great tennis, making friends and connections across the island and seeing Rachel develop both technically and emotionally as a player.
Of the 11 singles tournaments she entered last year in her U-12 age group, Rachel won 10 and was runner up in the other. Obviously that level of consistent excellence was fantastic to be a part of.
It meant that she ended the year as the number one ranked girl at U-12 in Ireland and represented the country in the Tri-Nations in Wales.
That had to be last year’s crowning achievement and a great source of pride for us.
Her immediate ambition, having moved up an age category this year, is to become the top ranked Irish girl at U-14, something that is well within her grasp. This year and next will see her play a few European tournaments to gain a European ranking.
By one of those happy coincidences, as part of my retirement plans we bought a property in Brittany, France, and that has allowed Rachel to join the local club there and will hopefully open up new tennis, as well as cultural, opportunities for her.
Continuing to play in European competitions means that she will gain the appropriate experience that would enable her to apply for an American sports scholarship, which in turn would mean that she could continue to play the sport at a competitively high level while gaining a university education.
But that is a while away. In the meantime, Rachel will hopefully continue to enjoy playing, while we watch and try to hold our nerve.”
‘My career is second place to the kids’ tennis’
Kathryn Connor (36) lives in Lambeg with her husband Michael (37), son Mackenzie (13), and daughter Isabella (11). She says:
Isabella followed in the footsteps of her older brother by joining the local tennis club when she was four. She instantly loved having a tennis racket in her hand and always had a smile on her face and a skip in her step when on court.
She started off playing in a recreational class once a week at Hilden Tennis Club in Lisburn, until she was invited into their performance squad a few years later. In 2015, she joined the regional Ulster Tennis Academy and in the same year was extremely fortunate to spend three months at three different tennis academies in Florida.
On her return, she was invited to the National Tennis Academy at Dublin City University, where she was then selected with five other girls to be part of the Irish National Futures Tennis Squad (U-12). She currently trains in Dublin twice a week.
It’s a challenge to find enough hours in the day to organise all that goes along with supporting your child to play their chosen sport at a high junior level.
Entering tournaments in Ulster, the Republic. Europe, the USA, organising transport and accommodation, arranging physiotherapy and fitness trainer appointments, applying for tennis funding, trying to get sponsorships, it’s not easy.
Tennis is also a very expensive sport to be involved in. Very little funding comes our way, apart from some financial support from our local councils and the GLL Sports Foundation (a charitable social enterprise to support talented athletes across the UK), which we are thankful for.
From weekly individual lesson costs to regular re-stringing of rackets to tournament and accommodation fees, it can be frightening at times to add up.
Another challenge as a tennis parent is sitting courtside during your child’s match and not showing too many emotions.
Isabella has been wisely taught by her coach to take responsibility on court and not look to me for answers when things aren’t going to plan or opponents aren’t playing fairly.
That can be hard sometimes for both of us. But I try my best to give off positive vibes.
There are many early morning starts, 6.30am journeys to Dublin with Isabella half asleep beside me.
This obviously interferes not only with Isabella’s social calendar, from missing birthday parties and sleepovers, but also with mine. Isabella has chosen to make the commitment to train hard, though, so I don’t complain.
With regards to my employment, I am fortunate to work part-time. My husband and I run our own optometry practice in Belfast. Without these flexible working hours and the support of my husband, I just couldn’t fulfil the demands of Isabella’s and Mackenzie’s sporting commitments.
The advancement in my career isn’t possible at the moment, but I’m more than happy to make that sacrifice in order to encourage and watch them succeed at their chosen sports.
I do feel blessed that I get to see them thrive through their sports. I wouldn’t have it any other way and I am very proud of them and their achievements.
Seeing your child excel at the sport they love is priceless.
Watching Isabella travel the world in her green Ireland tennis sweater brings Michael and I great pride.
This year alone she has played in the USA, Czech Republic, Italy and Majorca.
She is gaining such life experiences and independence. You really can’t put a price on the tennis friendships she has made with the five other girls on her Irish squad who come from all over Ireland.
We love to travel together, from visiting European cities like Paris, Madrid, London and Palma in the last 18 months, to further afield, including lots of states around America.
When at home we enjoy outdoor life, going out with family and friends and with our golden Labrador, Toby.
Michael and Mackenzie enjoy spending free time on the golf course while us girls are more than happy to watch from a nice coffee shop with a hot chocolate.”