A really interesting article, even if you are not a Durie Diehard...
Game, upset, smashed - Jo Durie
Friday, June 19, 1992
Jo Durie on the strengths that have made her Britain's No 1, and the weaknesses that leave her a global also-ran
We have been here before. A top British tennis player - the top British player, for no Briton is ranked more highly in the world than Jo Durie is on court in a high wind under a cloudless sky. As I arrive I am told in whispered, funereal tones: "She's 4-1 down." I watch the match. She loses 3-6, 1-6. Her opponent, Rennae Stubbs of Australia, is cool and insouciant. Not only is Miss Durie outmanoeuvred and outplayed by a younger, quicker, more aggressive volleyer, she is also unlucky with some terrible line calls and disturbed by a deafening helicopter which circles overhead.
There is a knot in the crowd's collective stomach because the agreeable Miss Durie, now 31, our former child tennis star, once ranked fifth in the world, is still, after 22 years in the game, the best British woman player we've got, so come on, Jo ...
I have come to Eastbourne, in East Sussex, to see her in the Pilkington Glass International Ladies' Tournament, just a few days before Wimbledon begins, because Miss Durie seems to be on a wave of victory. Only the day before she had won easily, after beating Zina Garrison, the No 5 seed, in the first round. Even the great Martina Navratilova had been knocked out. On grass, anything can happen.
Miss Durie emerges to face the tennis press, tall and tanned and cheerful with an ice pack the size of a sultan's turban on her elbow. The blustery wind, she says, had made her arm feel as if it were about to fall off each time she served. The reporters are polite. Was it that Miss Stubbs played well, and that she had played less well? Miss Durie is candid. "It was more me playing not very well. She didn't have to do too much: she wasn't threatened. She let me beat myself. I missed a lot of volleys, I just didn't feel comfortable. I didn't move well either. It's a bit disappointing, really."
Disappointing, yes. But we need our annual disappointment like our annual Wimbledon deluge followed by a predictable heatwave: it is part of our national heritage. What else would we write about each June?
Eastbourne is a foretaste of Wimbledon: picturesque in the traditional British way, a green-and-white scene under an aquamarine sky. It is the perfect seaside setting for the senior citizens in white sun-hats, courteous in their applause, and clamorous schoolchildren: this is the game everyone can enjoy. Here at Devonshire Park lawn tennis has been played since 1890.
One pictures Mrs Lambert Chambers, the Edwardian tennis heroine, in her high-neck blouse, her petersham belt and skirts to the ankles, moving as though on wheels to pat the ball in a loop over the net, in the days before Suzanne Lenglen amazed everyone by daring to show her legs. Today, the legs are great sturdy trunks, with massive thighs and rippling calf muscles, smooth and brown and powerful. And the sheer force of the grunting two-handed backhand volley: how this game has changed. In Miss Durie's time it has changed beyond recognition.
"When I had my first pro year when I went to Wimbledon and lost to Virginia Wade in the first round in 1977 if you watch the finals for those years, the late 1970s, you think, my God, it looks so slow. Chris Evert looks overweight, and it's like she's not hitting the ball hard. Nowadays people expect to be athletic, they hit the ball out of sight, the whole thing has changed professionally and athletically. It really pleases me that I've been involved in tennis as it was then, and to have lasted so long."
But when we write our laments about the British tennis player it is people like Miss Durie we think of, who has risen and fallen in the public estimation. She was the "sunny, sparkling" teenager, focus of patriotic aspiration; now she is that solidly British thing, the veteran with staying power. All the while she has lived the not very appealing life of constantly travelling the circuit; the endless hotel rooms, the sheer boredom of waiting for your match, so much wasted time spent hanging about conserving energy, punctuated by moments of glory and depression. It is the nearest thing sport offers to the pop business, complete with fans, hangers-on, minders, agents and money-men.
Hers is not an especially glamorous existence. She lives with her black cat Pickles in Enfield, Middlesex, in a house with a mortgage, practising daily with Alan Jones, her coach, at Hazelwood Club. Her idea of a good time is going out for a meal and a musical with friends. She skis every year, the only break from tennis. This summer her holiday will be spent at a dude ranch in Arizona: to play golf, and more tennis.
"This is my 14th year on the tour, and I'm ranked 36 in the world. I've had a really yo-yo career. I've come from being understudy to Virginia and Sue Barker to being ranked five in the world, and getting into semi-finals of Grand Slams, to having a bad spell and down to my lowest ranking of 160, last August."
How did she so dramatically change her fortunes since then? "Well, in 1990 I played Newport, Rhode Island, and lost in the final to (Arantxa) Sanchez Vicario in a really close three-set match which put my ranking up to 60. A year later, Newport was cancelled, the only grass tournament outside Britain, so I could not defend my ranking. I had to play cement court tournaments in America. I lost in San Diego, and then went to Toronto and played an awful match in the first round. I was bad-tempered, frustrated, tearful, upset on court, lost in three sets, came off and cried my eyes out. I just went out of the front gate and sat under a tree and I was absolutely in despair. I was feeling so bad, so sorry for myself, it was all on top of me.
"And Alan came out and sat down with me and said: 'This is not worth it, not worth getting in such a state about. Think about your life. Why put yourself through all this emotional turmoil, when you work so hard and keep practising, and not get anything back which is pleasant?'
"Well, from there we went to LA and, it's funny how things go, I just about scraped through my first match; the next round I beat Zina Garrison in the closest of matches, unbelievable tennis, I played so well. So I got to the quarter-finals. I thought: 'This is ridiculous, I am the same person as I was last week. Yet it feels as if something has been lifted off my shoulders.'
"Now I feel, win or lose, I'm trying as hard as I can: you've got to loosen up, Jo. I went on to the US Open, won three rounds, and beat (Helena) Sukova. I've tried to keep the same attitude ever since. It's not always easy: but I feel I've come to terms with myself. It's not just about winning and losing, it's about performing and getting pleasure from it."
This is the mature and balanced Miss Durie at 31. Meanwhile, new young high-flyers emerge and suffer from massive over-exposure as, immature and ill-equipped emotionally, they face the pressure and publicity, the fatigue and the hassles. Monica Seles (aged 17) was quoted only last week as saying: "To be No 1 is a terrible cross. My life has become a prison." Even her hairstyle was a promotional deal with a cosmetics company, worth $600,000. What a weird life.
"I feel in a way very sorry for any British player who shows any sign of being any good at this moment," Miss Durie says. "They pick on someone as the saviour of British tennis. So they will build you up, write about you, put you on a pedestal, be your friend, until you're suddenly not winning any more, and then my goodness, you'd better be ready for some of the nasty stories they write about you and the way they can attack you and bring you back down again. It's not very pleasant. You have to build a kind of shell for yourself.
"Remember Annabel Croft? She got out because her nerve went, I'm sure because of all the pressure, everyone expecting her to be The Next One, and she couldn't handle it any more. She was so unhappy: watching her suffer on court was awful. I was glad in a way for her that she got out. Sarah Gomer showed promise but didn't quite come up to expectations. It's tough. Clare Wood is another good player. But everyone wants Wimbledon champions, and they're not interested in anything less. It's even worse for the men: there have always been two or three of us hovering round the top 100, but the men ... if you discount Jeremy Bates, who else are you looking at?"
Miss Durie was born with the advantages of those who succeed in British tennis. The first factor was access to a tennis court. The Durie family used to go every summer to Lyme Regis, in Dorset, to the large, grand house of Uncle Eustace and Aunt Nora, who had a shale tennis court. She and her two elder brothers, who both played tennis at county level and went to Cambridge and are both now schoolteachers, and her younger brother Stephen, who now coaches at a London club, used to muck around on the court.
By the time she was eight she was a member of the King's Club at Bristol, run by her godfather Denis Bendall: a man ahead of his time in that he encouraged the juniors. "Any keen junior could join the club and he would have hundreds of us out there on Saturday mornings hitting balls and it was just so much fun. And he soon saw that I had more talent and needed individual tuition.
"It was the whole atmosphere. It was our own little club, where we could go four nights a week, after school, rain or shine, and play under floodlight. That's what started me off. Denis's enthusiasm and nagging and pushing kept us going." He congratulated her for playing well when she had her first 0-6, 0-6 defeat in her first ever tournament at eight (her opponent serving underarm) and was there when she beat Debbie Jeavons in the under-12 national finals on these very grass courts at Eastbourne.
Hurdle two was having parents willing to drive their children the long distances to tournaments: her father, a bank manager with Lloyds, would take his holidays to fit in with the circuit. This is the sacrifice in time and expense the tennis parent has to make: few can even contemplate it. In other respects her upbringing was quite ordinary. "I first went in an aeroplane when I was 16," she says, "and that was to Dublin to play a match. I'd never done anything but domestic junior tournaments. My upbringing was really very confined to what little kids did.
"Dad always said: 'You've got to do what you want to do, and you've got to be happy doing it.' If I rang him from abroad with results of some tournament, he would say: 'Worse things happen at sea'. That was his philosophy for the whole of my tennis career."
Thus it was all the more shocking when this man of equable temperament fell to his death, seven years ago, at the foot of the Avon Gorge. That was a harrowing time for Miss Durie. "I was glad I had tennis to put my mind to. I won the nationals that year, I just immersed myself in tennis. He was great, my dad, with all of us, all he wanted was for us to be happy. He was fabulous."
The problem for the British player is the way British attention focuses only on Wimbledon. "It's so unfair in a way. There are only two grass tournaments for women, and two for men, in the whole year, snd all these commentators suddenly arrive and ask: 'Who's going to win Wimbledon?' It's pretty tough on us all. It happens year after year. Any success we have elsewhere is hardly noticed. Everyone is looking for a Wimbledon winner and it's just not going to happen like that.
"We need we need to generate more interest throughout the year, to get people out onto tennis courts. In America they have TV commercials with Pam Shriver or Chris Evert saying: 'Pick up a racquet! Come try it! Go to a park, see what it's like!' Somehow we've got to get them playing.
"You have to look at what's happening at grass-roots level to see if that's building up properly, then we can start looking for tournament winners and then for Grand Slam winners. But what do people expect? We haven't got that many youngsters playing tennis to start with."
She does her bit for the youth of Britain. She goes to places like Stirling, Glasgow, Plymouth, to do one-day coaching clinics as part of her sponsorship by Pilkington Glass. The best juniors in the region are brought out: 7,500 of them so far. "We try to give them a few tips and maybe inspire them a bit. We hope they help, but you wonder, where's the follow-up? Sometimes it's hard for these kids even to get to a tennis court, let alone to get coaching. So that's what we're up against."
In any case, she adds, consider tennis's appeal. For the good of the nation's health, it's more convenient than soccer, it's both competitive and fun, it gives you exercise and a social life and you can carry on playing for the whole of your life. Her mother still plays, all year round, in a genteel ladies' four.
Few international tennis stars have emerged as emotionally unscarred as Miss Durie, even after her injury problems, with spinal surgery 10 years ago that took her out of the game for six months. When she injured her shoulder, she simply altered her serve to the very singular one she uses today.
Miss Durie is placidly eating an ice-cream cornet. Her clothes are by Robey, her racquet is a Spin, her shoes are Adidas, and Pilkington Glass ensures that her travel expenses, and Mr Jones's, are paid for, which all goes to keep her in the manner to which she became accustomed in youth. "If you spend a week in America, fares and hotel rooms come to Pounds 1,500, and that's a lot of expense if you have to pay the mortgage."
The partnership with Jones the coach has lasted since she left school in Bristol after getting her six O-levels and went to stay with him and his family. "We've had some terrible arguments. But our relationship is calmer now. He knows what I'm capable of. I've had to rely on his strength and he's been there for so long and never given up on me, as a coach and a friend."
At this point the familiar bespectacled figure of Mr Jones appears at her side and tells her she really ought to go and watch Linda Harvey-Wild, who is having a hard time on court 4 from Larisa Savchenko-Neiland. (Tennis women's names have lengthened as their muscles have strengthened.) Miss Harvey-Wild is the 21-year-old American who saw off Miss Navratilova the day before and she is drawn to play Miss Durie in the first round of Wimbledon. "It's very educational," Mr Jones says. "She's good, but Savchenko is tying her in knots." We all troop off to watch Miss Harvey-Wild's nifty way of chipping the ball down the line. Mr Jones mutters into Miss Durie's ear throughout. "Yes", Miss Durie says, "it was very educational." (Harvey-Wild won.)
Every year the LTA announces "new initiatives". There is money available. Short tennis is to be introduced into schools. A tennis supremo is appointed as Warren Jacques was in 1988 then leaves the scene: little has changed. The dynamo coach from Florida, Nick Bollettieri, Andre Agassi's mentor, last year announced he would be working with LTA coaches to bring on British youth in the American style. Miss Durie has spoken out with passion about her despair over British tennis. "We should have regional centres with squads all over the country. We should have 40 players at Bisham Abbey (the LTA training centre), not four. I can't see how things can change."
When she was 11, Dan Maskell told her she would win Wimbledon one day. The furthest she got was the quarter-finals, but even that was further than any other British player for years. Doubtless in the coming fortnight the same old questions will be asked: Are we hungry enough? Do we have the killer instinct? Is it just that we are such gentlemen (and ladies) and don't mind losing? Are British players "too nice"? People have often said Miss Durie, whose smile is more familiar than her scowl, is too nice.
"No," she says emphatically. "I wouldn't have got where I am today being too nice. I'm not too nice at all. I just treat everyone as you should treat other human beings. But when I'm on a tennis court, don't get me wrong: I want to win."
Our dear old "Tennis, anyone?" was long ago laughed out of court, and our game of "Sorry!" and "Good shot!" and "My service is hopeless" really is now the different ball game of the cliche. But even Miss Joan Hunter-Dunne had "the speed of a swallow, the grace of a boy" and no sponsorship. Come on, Jo.