Illingworth is still serving up a treat
THE people of Tunbridge Wells may not know it, but an international tennis star is living among them.
Okay, Ruth Illingworth may not be a household name like Andy Murray and Laura Robson, but in the world of veteran tennis there are few that can match her achievements.
INTERNATIONAL STAR: Ruth Illingworth gets in a bit of practice on the clay courts at the Nevill in Tunbridge Wells
The 79-year-old has been named the British Veteran Player of the Year, just weeks after reaching the final of the doubles and the team event at the Super-Seniors World Team Championship in Turkey.
Those two silver medals have been added to an impressive collection that already includes eight team gold medals, eight individual gold medals in doubles and the two golds in singles that she has won over the years at the world championships.
"I'm 79 now," Illingworth said. "I've been in this age group for four years. The longer you are in it the more difficult it is. You do not usually do very well in the last year so to get a silver is very creditable.
"I've played in these international events since 1983. It's very competitive, the standard is very high. The men go on playing up to the over 80 age group. You would not believe the way they move around the court."
Illingworth's future playing in the competition depends upon the governing body introducing an over 80s age group for ladies as well as her own desire to carry on competing at such a high level.She was persuaded to play this year by June Pearce, a county partner who had just reached the over-75 age group.
"It's 50-50 at the moment," she admitted. "It's in Turkey again, so not that far to go. I missed the one in Australia last year. I'd been three times before but adjusting to the jet lag is difficult. I'd had quite enough of that.
"We'll see if they bring in an over 80s. I've told everyone I've packed up playing singles. But people still say I could go on playing doubles. I'll think about it next year. I'd still probably get selected. I'm still number two in the country and there's nobody else coming up."
The only person ahead of her in the rankings is Pearce.
"June's a bit faster than me – I'm beginning to slow down a bit," she was forced to admit. "It's disappointing because I've always been fast on my feet. At the same time I'm lucky to still be playing – a lot of people aren't able to at my age."
It was never in doubt that Illingworth, who has now been playing competitive tennis for 67 years, would pick up
a racquet as a youngster. Her whole family was tennis mad, but she could never have imagined the success she would have.
Illingworth played at Wimbledon six times; in 1953 and 54, before breaking off to get married and have children, and again between 1961 and 1965.
"Just playing at Wimbledon was such a thrill," she said. "Mind you there wasn't the money back then that there is now. I got to the semis of the doubles in that first year, that was my best performance. It was tough, even in those days, when it really was amateur compared to now.
"I once got through a round in the singles, but my problem was I always seemed to come up against the top seeds!"
She also has fond memories of getting the better of 1977's Wimbledon champion.
"I once beat Virginia Wade. She was only 17 at the time, but I still beat her."
Unsurprisingly, in a tennis career that has seen her play grand slams, beat greats, travel the world, possibly set a record as the longest serving county player – 32 years playing for Nottinghamshire – and win numerous titles, Illingworth has some interesting views on the game she loves.
One thing she can't stand are the on court histrionics of the modern
players, thankfully something rarely seen in the veteran game.
"My favourite modern player is Kim Clijsters. She behaves so well.
"There's none of this grunting and groaning, or the fist coming up. I don't like that sort of thing. As for the men, Roger Federer is my favourite. Once again he behaves so well and is such a nice chap."
And what about British hopes?
"Tennis is a funny game," she said. "You have to be fit, but you also have to have it up here in the head. That's where a lot of our Brits fall down. There's also a lot of hard work and training that needs to be done. Not many people want to do that."
Future tennis stars from these shores could learn a lot from Ruth Illingworth.