One Love: Meet our teen tennis sensations
Amid the epic volleys on the hallowed turf of Wimbledon this year and the excitement of the thousands of spectators at the courts and on Murray Mound — the erstwhile Henman Hill grass amphitheatre — there will be many young, eager hearts watching particularly intently.
They are the up-and-coming junior players from across the UK and Ireland who look to going professional as a way of making it big in this often eye-wateringly lucrative sporting discpline.
And among these are the next generation of stars from Northern Ireland — where tennis is played on an all-island basis with Ireland — although the fact that our tennis facilities lag far behind other tennis champion-producing countries doesn’t help.
There is proof, of course, that Northern Ireland can turn out world-class sportsmen — just look at the success of golfer Rory McIlroy or champion jockey AP McCoy — but for some, where there’s hope there can also often be disappointment after a long, hard grind on the circuit.
For many of these young tennis fans, their attention this week is on Andy Murray as he seeks to defend his men’s singles title (and bag a whopping £1,760,000 in prize money), as well as no doubt casting an eye on former women’s number one Caroline Wozniacki — ex-fiancée of McIlroy — to see if her winning form can return after her cancelled wedding.
But for those hoping to follow in their heroes’ footsteps, just what does it take to make it through the countless tournament matches, and how important is the support of family and friends along the way?
We talk to three rising stars from the Northern Ireland circuit and their parents about their personal journeys to achieve their potential in this most demanding sport.
Peter Bothwell is one of Northern Ireland’s brightest hopes in professional tennis. At 18 he has opted not to accept a tennis scholarship at one of the many prestigious tennis universities in the USA this September, but to start out on a relentless grind of tournaments, aiming to rack up 30 over the year in order to improve his all-important rankings.
The cost of competing in these tournaments is between £500-£1,000, depending on location, increasing significantly if a coach is brought along, which rarely happens until the player is highly ranked.
It’s a journey that he will be making on his own for the next year or two as parents Louise and Nigel remain at home in Hillsborough, Co Down, with his younger brother Sam, who at 16 is also making great progress as a junior player.
He has been training at the Soto Tennis Academy in southern Spain for the last year as he works to perfect his play on clay courts — something that is not available to him and other young players here.
Peter’s love and ability for tennis was fostered as a child from the age of six by his mother, formerly Louise Tuff — who represented Ireland at Junior Wimbledon in the 1970s — and his grandfather Sam Tuff, a famous Tennis Ulster coach who sadly died earlier this year.
“While I started playing at around the age of six, I think I even crawled around tennis courts as a baby, I also enjoyed other sports such as football, swimming and rugby,” recalls Peter.
“But tennis really took over from the other sports from around the age of 12, when I decided that it was the one that I was going to commit to.
“I have had quite a standard to live up to as my mum played Junior Wimbledon, but hopefully I can better that.”
A former student of Dromore High School, which supported his tennis commitments over the years, Peter has eight GSCEs and two AS Levels to his credit at an age where most parents would be worrying what possible university that their son or daughter should go to.
As we speak, he is on the bus to Dublin for yet another tournament, and it’s a road that he has travelled quite a bit as he reached the semis of the juniors in the Irish Tennis Federation tournament at Donnybrook, Dublin.
“I’ve decided not to take up a tennis scholarship as I want to pursue a full-time career in tennis,” he says. “I want to play for a few years and see how it goes.
“At the moment, it’s not financially viable for me to play at every tournament that I would want to as it’s so expensive to travel to these places and I don’t have a sponsor.
“On average, it probably costs about £1,000 a week to go to a tournament. I do have support from the Mary Peter Trust that helps me a little bit but I don’t have a big sponsor that can help me travel more, which I’m looking out for, obviously.
“The problem with these tournaments is that the money has been the same for the last 20 years, so the top guys may be making as much as a couple of hundred thousand pounds a week whereas the money I’m making is only £100, so it’s a big contrast.
“It’s a tough road ahead but this is the road I chose. I’m very determined and I have goals that I want to achieve.
“Next, I would like to achieve a world ranking, that’s my main goal. I’ve been at a few main draw events and I’ve lost to guys who are ranked in the top 700, so I haven’t had the best draws so far but that will come.
“In the next few years I would hope to be playing in the Davis Cup for Ireland. The end goal for me would be to make it into the top 100 in the world. Obviously, that’s way down the line.”
The extent of the challenge of his ambition suddenly becomes clear when he says that his career highlight has been beating a player ranked 1,010th in the world.
Peter contends that Ireland particularly struggles to produce good tennis players, mainly due to the tennis facilities.
“In the UK, they have indoor hard courts, slow hard courts and they even have clay and grass, whereas in Ireland, you only really have the artificial grass.
“There’s about two tournaments in the whole year that are played on artificial grass, so you are just so far behind as you play a completely different game on clay or slow hardcourt than on artificial grass.”
His mother Louise, however, like his company director father Nigel, believes that their eldest son’s commitment to his sport is worth encouraging and he has their full support.
While Peter still bases himself at Soto — only coming home for “rests” — the couple are also financially supporting their youngest son Sam to attend Soto from September.
It’s parental devotion that comes at a high price.
Louise (51) uses her earnings as a tennis coach to cover the approximately £20,000 costs of Peter’s at
tendance at Soto, while Nigel tries to cover the tournament costs.
“Financially, it’s hard enough for us to support him just to go on his own to these tournaments as we can’t afford a coach,” says Louise.
“He will try and sleep on a mattress on a floor with friends in England or plan ahead if he’s going to Egypt or Morocco to see if he can bunk in with other players.
“But where he is in Soto, they would encourage this independence because if he can stand on his own two feet and go out there to Egypt and come through that, it will stand him in good stead in the long run, whether that is in professional tennis or not.
“He only comes home now for a rest and, yes, it is hard for us as parents to know if we have made the right decision but he’s so passionate about the sport and has already done eight years of hard training.
“I don’t ring him every day. I’m quite content when he’s away as he’s happy and he only usually rings when something goes wrong, so he’s quite independent that way.
“He has to be — it’s his work, his career and he needs to be able to take the winning and the losing. He has to take the ups and down or he won’t survive.”
Louise realises that their decision to support both their sons’ dreams of going further in professional tennis might not be understood by some.
“There are some people who probably think we are mad, but it’s what the boys want to do,” she says.
“They have made the commitment to work hard and train and not to complain about it and we made the commitment to support them, so we don’t complain about that either.
“There are times that we worry that we will run out of money just at the time when Peter is about to make it big, but we try not to dwell on that too much as we are committed to help them achieve their potential.”
Karola Bejenaru is a young woman who carries the hopes of two countries — Romania and her adopted home country of Northern Ireland — on her toned shoulders.
She and her parents, Leonard and Anca, headed off to Wimbledon this week in the calculated hope that she might get to play in Junior Wimbledon, but it’s a cost and a chance that they are willing to take.
The 17-year-old, who lives in east Belfast and attends Belfast Metropolitan College, has just jumped 11 places to be ranked 154th in the World International Tennis Federation under-18 rankings.
“I’m in what’s known as ‘sixth alternates’ and I know a girl from America who can’t go because she has a back injury so I’m hoping that I will get to go to qualies [qualifications]. It would be very exciting as I’ve made friends with players in the main draw and they say that you get to share a dressing room with Sharapova and the main female players, so that would be big.
“Even to be there will be a really big thing for me; it will probably change my tennis as well.”
Like many other young female players, tennis star Maria Sharapova is her inspiration.
“She’s brilliant, she too left her home to try and make it, so we have the same story,” says Karola, who joined her family to live in Northern Ireland seven years ago, and was shortlisted for a prestigious Belfast Telegraph Woman of the Year award for sport in 2012.
She arrived in order to further her tennis career, with her older sister Arthemis (23), who is now studying at university.
It’s something that her father Leonard is particularly keen on as it was an opportunity that he never got to enjoy.
He was a number one table tennis player in Romania in his youth under the harsh Communist regime led by Nicolae Ceausescu.
His mother, however, was not happy about him leaving to attend a sports institute as a child.
“I do not want to make the same mistake with Karola that my parents made with me,” says Leonard, who works the night shift at Domino’s Pizza in order to support his family. His wife Anca works at the Europa Hotel and the parents say that both their employers have been very|supportive to them as they travel with Karola.
Sport was always going to figure in the Bejenaru household, though, as Leonard explains.
“It is traditional in Romania for the parents to want their sons to play football and their daughters to play tennis. So I started her off at an early age and we noticed at an early age that Karola had talent, but more than that, she likes to win.”
Her parents, like others, are making sacrifices to enable her to compete. Leonard comes off his night shift to take Karola to the Windsor Tennis Club so she can practise ahead of college before he has a rest, then takes her back in the evening.
It was reading about Leonard’s devotion to his daughter’s sport in the Belfast Telegraph that encouraged her local sponsor, George Glenholmes, to come forward.
A sports lover, George now kindly provides the financial sponsorship, along with sponsorship from Domino’s and the Mary Peters Trust, to help with Karola’s competition costs.
“When I read the Belfast Telegraph, I just thought, ‘Wow, she’s brilliant and this family could do with some help’,” explains George. “Karola has turned out to be the granddaughter that I never had, and in fact the whole family have taken me into their family as one of their own.”
Under the guidance of her coach Przemek Stec, Karola, like Peter Bothwell, hopes to turn professional soon rather than attend a tennis academy.
“My dream is to be on the TV and to be in the top ten, but it’s very hard,” she says. “This year has been really hard, the toughest in my career and I’ve lost more than I’ve won, but I’m lucky that I have the support of my family and friends.”
Laura Reid is another promising player, who, along with Lucy Octave (17), from Donaghadee, Co Down, is also nipping at Karola’s heels.
The 16-year-old, who plays for Belfast Boat Club and trains at David Lloyd, is currently ranked number nine in the under-18s in the Tennis Ireland rankings.
Her parents, Stephen and Deirdre, enrolled her in a tennis bounce camp organised at the Ozone in Belfast when she was just aged six, and from there she has gone on to become one of the young female stars of Tennis Ireland.
“Laura’s ability kind of took us by surprise as we didn’t realise she was that good,” says Stephen. “For a while there when she was about 12, it seemed that everything she entered, she won. She was the Irish under-12 champion on her first entry and really has just progressed ever since.
“I’ve never been the type of parent that wanted my children to be stuck behind a PlayStation, or an Xbox, as I believe kids should be out and about playing and involved in sports. I’m quite sporty myself, so it was natural to get my child involved.
“Laura’s our only child so we are helping her as much as possible in her sport, and like other parents, cost is an issue as we have no major sponsorship.
“However, we would be looking to see if Laura can attend a tennis academy in England or America.
Laura says: “It can definitely be hard not being able to go to things that my other friends get to because of my tennis but mostly they understand that I have to put my tennis first.
“Recently I was playing tennis for 15 hours a week, that’s less than normal as I was doing my GCSEs, and so I play every day as well as going to the gym.
“But I really love it and would like to go further but I also want to do my A-levels.
“One day would love to be like Maria Sharapova. She’s a brilliant player, she never gives up and always keeps going.”
Belfast Telegraph Digital