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From boyhood days in Tyrone to the glory of Wimbledon


Sister act: Serena Williams, along with her sister Venus, has dominated the women’s game for more than a decade

Sister act: Serena Williams, along with her sister Venus, has dominated the women’s game for more than a decade

McEnroe celebrates his 1981 victory

McEnroe celebrates his 1981 victory

Bjorn Borg

Bjorn Borg

Holding court: Ed Curran and his daughter Claire

Holding court: Ed Curran and his daughter Claire

John McEnroe serves against his arch rival Bjorn Borg in the legendary 1981 Wimbledon final

John McEnroe serves against his arch rival Bjorn Borg in the legendary 1981 Wimbledon final

Pete Sampras punches the air after his 2000 triumph, one of seven at the All England Club

Pete Sampras punches the air after his 2000 triumph, one of seven at the All England Club


Sister act: Serena Williams, along with her sister Venus, has dominated the women’s game for more than a decade

My love affair with tennis and Wimbledon dates back to childhood in Co Tyrone. To the era of the legendary left-hander Rod Laver, who won the singles title four times in the 1960s.

I discovered tennis when I was seven, peering over the perimeter fence of the local club, enviously watching a sedate game of doubles on a summer Saturday afternoon. Whenever a stray shot flew over my head, I would scamper off to find the ball and return it to the court.

Very soon my efforts were rewarded with an invitation to join the players in their Wimbledon white shorts and skirts - the likes of local solicitors, doctors and executives from the nearby textile mill - for polite afternoon tea on the lawn in front of the old wooden pavilion.

It was a tennis club scene played out on most Saturdays across the island and one virtually unchanged from the Victorian era when tennis took hold.

That the tennis club was close by and my best school friend was just as enthusiastic about learning to play as I was meant we spent the long summer holidays, from early morning until the late twilight, playing each other for hours on end or persuading whoever we could find to make up a doubles.

As Wimbledon approached, our efforts would intensify, in my case trying to emulate the serve and shots of the great Laver, whom I idolised because, like me, he was left-handed.

Wimbledon itself was a far-off world of sporting make-believe to be accessed only by books and newspapers, by the break-neck speed of Max Robertson's radio commentary, or for those who were lucky enough to have television, by the first grainy black-and-white images of play on the Centre Court and the voice of Dan 'Oh, I say, what a volley' Maskell.

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I could never have imagined then that I would get to be in the Centre Court crowd, as I have done for the past 25 years, enjoying the championships at first hand. Or that I would watch my own daughter playing on the hallowed turf, as she did for four years. Or that I would have the chance, as I had a few months ago, to use the same historic dressing room as Federer and Nadal, Murray and Djokovic, to walk along the same corridor within the Centre Court complex as the greats have done, and have the privilege of playing on one of Wimbledon's courts.

As Novak Djokovic - the defending champion - opens Wimbledon on Monday afternoon, I can reflect on the enjoyment of tennis and a lifetime of memories to recall and cherish.

I remember for example travelling once a week on the train from Tyrone to Belfast's Victoria barracks for coaching. "Bend your knees, boy, get right down to that ball. Bend your knees," the elderly female coach, cigarette in hand, would shout across the hall.

I remember also boyhood battles against the wind and rain sweeping across the courts at Portrush's Ramore Head during the annual Co Antrim junior championships.

Not quite Eastbourne, but still a daunting venue when the wind caught a lob and carried it over the bowling green towards the raging Atlantic Ocean on a bleak August day.

It was not for the want of trying, but I could never quite match the skills of my teenage contemporaries all those years ago in the junior circuit tournaments, on the clay courts of the Windsor club in south Belfast, or the original grass of Belfast Boat Club, where I still play two or three times a week.

The green turf has long since gone, replaced, as has been the case virtually everywhere, by all-weather surfaces, playable even on wet winter days. Another significant change for the better are the growing number of covered courts in Ulster.

Professional tennis did not begin to take hold until the late-1960s. Top players from home and abroad who needed to practice on grass before Wimbledon would enter the annual championships at the Boat Club.

For example, the roll of Ulster champions on display in the club includes Tom Okker, known as the Flying Dutchman who was a US Open finalist and Wimbledon semi-finalist.

Nowadays, money talks on the tennis court, as it does in other sports which have embraced professionalism and must rely on spectator and television revenues and sponsorship.

Mere mortals of the amateur game, like myself, have their own benefits, perhaps just as important and rewarding. The attraction of tennis is that all can participate, male and female, young and old, and all do, even if the numbers playing during my lifetime have declined, with so many other leisure and fitness attractions from which to choose.

I may only have made Wimbledon as a viewing journalist and spectator, but I am pleased and proud - and deeply envious - of my daughter Claire, who represented both Great Britain and Ireland in the Wimbledon doubles and mixed doubles championships, played in the US Open at Flushing Meadows and, along the way, encountered many great players and had the privilege of being on the other side of the net to the likes of Martina Hingis, Mary Pierce, Martina Navratilova and Serena and Venus Williams.

Having spent years myself watching and revering Navratilova in her years as nine-times Wimbledon champion, to see my daughter share a court with her on the centre court at Eastbourne was an extraordinary experience.

Wimbledon is the epitome of sporting nostalgia. True, the vast majority of viewers who will catch the annual tennis bug over the next fortnight may never have picked up a racquet in their lives. But many will recall, as I do, the raw battles between McEnroe, Borg and Connors, the awesome Agassi at his best, the grace of Sampras and Federer, both barely drawing breath, the driven athleticism of Djokovic and Nadal and the dour determination to make history, as he did in 2013, of Andy Murray.

Or in the women's game, the virtually unbeatable Steffi Graf and Martina Navratilova, and, more recently, the dominance of the Williams sisters.

For my 'big' birthday last September, I was given a surprise special treat from my tennis-playing daughter. She invited me to the All-England club for dinner, but before that to do some penance - to actually play for an hour with her on a Wimbledon court.

I changed into my white tennis gear - Wimbledon does not do coloured clothing - in the seeded players' dressing room. I walked the walk they will take in the next fortnight, past the portraits of former champions lining a long corridor.

I descended the stairs to where the trophy cabinets stand, the cups and salvers which will be held aloft soon by the 2015 champions on the Centre Court.

And I stood under the words of Rudyard Kipling, taken from his poem If and inscribed above the door which leads out to one of the world's most famous sporting arenas:

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster, And treat those two imposters just the same ...

For me, it was all a long, long way, a far, far cry from peering through the courtside perimeter fence in Co Tyrone more than 60 years ago and retrieving an errant tennis ball from the bushes.

That boyhood moment was the start of a wonderfully enjoyable and enriching journey, the memories of which will come flooding back again as Wimbledon is played out once more in the coming week.

With the gladiatorial atmosphere, let the action begin...

The abiding attraction of Wimbledon is its history and tradition. From tumblers of dressed Pimms, to strawberries and cream, to the umpires politely calling out, "New balls, please", to total silence one moment from the spectators and then wild applause the next.

The legends of tennis haunt every corner and many of them, like McEnroe and Becker, Navratilova and Graf, are still alive and well and return to mingle among the 30,000 patrons fortunate enough to gain entrance each day.

Tens of millions around the world will associate with tennis and Wimbledon - if only for the next fortnight.

When I first walked through the gates, Steffi Graf was starting a run of seven titles and Pete Sampras was emulating her success with his nonchalant, seemingly effortless gait.

Then there was the mercurial Andre Agassi, the emotional Croat, Goran Ivanisevic and the unfortunate Tim Henman. He made four semi-finals and drew mile-long queues of fans camping overnight between Southfield tube station and the championship courts in the hope of getting a ticket and catching a glimpse of him.

I can recall, on one of Wimbledon's many rainy days, Cliff Richard regaling the crowd on centre court, and a teenage Venus Williams serving strawberry and cream to us journalists in the press centre restaurant. Tennis may have a sedate image, but at Wimbledon the atmosphere is gladiatorial. There is no hiding place.

Funding a big problem for game in Ulster

Tennis is a truly cross-community sport in Northern Ireland, mixed in every sense, played by young and old, male and female alike. It is less time-consuming and costly than golf and is good for health, fitness and social interaction.

There are leagues and tournaments to meet the standards of most players and age groups, as well as excellent coaching arrangements at several clubs.

The origins of tennis on this island pre-date partition. Tennis Ireland, with headquarters and a national academy for elite players in Dublin, is the governing body, along with four provincial councils.

Unlike other parts of the UK, Northern Ireland receives no funding benefit from the considerable annual profits of Wimbledon, which are channelled through the Lawn Tennis Association of Great Britain, to clubs and players in England, Scotland and Wales.

Had the defending Wimbledon champion Andy Murray been born in Northern Ireland, less than 200 miles from his home town of Dunblane, he would have received no support from the LTA.

The former minister of sport in Tony Blair's government, Ulster-born MP Kate Hoey, has challenged the current arrangement, but no one here, either in sports administration or among the politicians, appears willing to seek any change.

Local Ulster clubs are reliant on limited sponsorship, sports grants and National Lottery funding, which has helped improve facilities, such as floodlighting, all-weather surfaces and covered courts.

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