Courting attention - how we fell in love with Wimbledon
With the world famous tournament starting on Monday, former professional player Claire Curran, from Belfast, tells how a childhood fascination with the competition led to her playing doubles against the Williams sisters in SW19, while John Laverty recalls hero-worshipping Ilie Nastase ... until one John Patrick McEnroe came along
I started playing tennis when I was six, hitting a swing-ball in the garden. One of my earliest memories is of practising against the pebble-dashed wall of our home in south Belfast, with the balls bouncing back at awkward angles on the uneven surface and me scampering around trying to hit them with my little racquet.
The local Ulster Championship every June at the Boat Club was a big influence on my ambition to play at Wimbledon.
I remember being really jealous when my older sister played in the under-10 event and I hadn't been allowed to enter.
In the 1980s, some of the professional players would come over to Belfast to play and practise in the tournaments before Wimbledon.
These visiting players would sometimes allow me to hit with them at the Boat Club, alongside the Lagan River at Stranmillis, and the more I was exposed to their experience and chatted to them, the more I wanted to be part of it one day myself.
I had this thing in my mind that I would never go to Wimbledon as a spectator as friends and family did, but that I would only ever go through the gates if I could play there.
Mary Peters was a big inspirational influence, as I used to train at her gym.
I looked up greatly to her achievement in coming from Northern Ireland to win an Olympic gold medal.
Barry McGuigan and Dennis Taylor winning world titles were also iconic inspirations, just as I think the Northern Ireland team today and Rory McIlroy will make more young people dare to dream, as I did all those years ago.
Sadly, when I did eventually get to play at junior Wimbledon in 1996, the occasion was tinged with a deep sadness, as one of my local tennis-playing friends, Gareth Parker, had suffered a terrible death in north Belfast and I attended his funeral just before travelling over to London.
Still, being there as a teenager was unforgettable. For example, on one very early morning, there I was practising on the next court to Steffi Graff. And there was my name on the boards outside the centre court, along with other famous names like Andre Agassi and Monica Seles in that year.
Little did I realise that one day I would even get to play against my idol Martina Navratilova on the centre court at Eastbourne.
I was fortunate to play at Wimbledon in the main championships from 2004 to 2008. No matter how many times I have gone through those famous gates and walked out on to those courts, I still have the same wonderful feeling that there is nothing quite like this place with its great tradition and atmosphere.
Like many players, I struggled at times with injuries; so much so that, at one point, after playing in the 2000 US Open at Flushing Meadows and returning to London, I felt like giving up before I would have the opportunity to play in the greatest tennis tournament of them all.
Then, one dark March evening in 2002, I stood outside the gates of Wimbledon, which was close to where I lived, and the very sight of the grounds had a profound effect and made me determined to fulfil my childhood dream of still trying to play on that stage.
At my final Wimbledon doubles, Anne Keothavong and I played Serena and Venus Williams. Looking back, I wish that could have been my first match rather than my last, as the Williams sisters brought a power to the court which changed the women’s game.
It’s very difficult in a small country, but I hope one day Northern Ireland will have another player at Wimbledon. Certainly, the inspiration must be there, given the achievement of the Northern Ireland soccer side, added to the success of other Ulster sportsmen and women, and stretching back to Mary Peters in 1972.
Daring to dream is a great motto for every young person to hold.
Claire Curran played in the main championships at Wimbledon for five years in succession (2004-2008)