How did you get involved in tennis?
Two years ago a friend took me to a Paralympic ‘come and try’ event. When I hit that tennis ball, for the first time in a long time, I started to feel like myself again. Being able to leave the house on my own has been liberating!
The Dan Maskell Tennis Trust have awarded you a Roma Sport Tennis Wheelchair; how has the chair assisted your performance?
The chair has been amazing. It’s light, smooth and I can keep it in top condition so it performs at a really high level – it’s also a thing of beauty, and it fits me like a glove. Having my own chair makes me independent at the tennis centre. Nottingham Tennis Centre have been very supportive and have provided me with a box so I can keep it with them day to day. This means all my effort can go into training.
You’re currently training in Loughborough under Tennis Foundation National Coach Martyn Whait; what are his plans for you over the coming season?
As I learn how to better play tennis, my confidence has developed along with my strength and fitness. Wheelchair tennis is all about overcoming difficulties; this is one of the aspects Martyn seems to love most about it. I have a lot of weakness and pain in my hands and wrists, and in the first game of my first tournament I picked up an injury that made the rest of the weekend horribly painful. To future proof against this I can rely on my core which is solid. Martyn has been working with me to manage the way I hit the ball to get the most out of my body, protecting my wrist from further injury. So now I work to get all my hitting power from my stomach, chest and back. It also means doing work off court to strengthen the muscles needed.
Has the sport improved your quality of life?
I’m a different person now. When I fell I put on a lot of weight. I was confined to my wheelchair, stuck in my house. I lost all confidence in myself – and that wasn’t a problem I’d had before when I used to be a singer. I could do very little for myself, I was getting no exercise, barely even any fresh air. I became depressed and anxious. Things were very hard. You start to feel so isolated. Between the physical pain, the seemingly insurmountable obstacles and the complete loss of confidence, you lose any motivation to leave the house. Since I found tennis, I’ve lost 3 stone and counting. My consultants have told me I’m ‘defying the textbooks’ as I’m managing to halt the progress of muscle wasting with the hard work at the gym, as well as on the court.
It’s no secret that physical activity can have a positive impact on mental health; have you noticed a difference in your mental well-being?
So much. I was utterly without hope, but when I found tennis it was like a door opened inside me and I could taste freedom. On court there are so many other things to think about I can almost forget about the pain. When I’m pushing myself flat out and I get to a difficult ball, it feels like I’m flying. As my understanding for the game has deepened I’ve started to appreciate how vital the mental side is and how, if I want to improve I have to try and give myself tools for dealing with challenges. I’ve had to learn to believe in myself, to forgive myself for bad shots and find ways to move on to the next point. This way of seeing things has been a great aspect to apply to my daily life as the more stressed I get the more adrenaline triggers my nerves and increases pain. Wheelchair Tennis has taught me so much about myself; as Martina Navratilova said: “the better I get, the more I realise how much better I can get.”
You recently competed in your first few National Tournaments, how have they gone?
It’s been intense. In the first tournament it was a shock how many matches I had to play in a short time, but I got runner up with Nick King in the novice mixed doubles even with a wrist injury. In my second tournament Nick and I won the novice mixed double and I came 3rd in the novice singles.
July 17-22 sees Nottingham host the British Open Wheelchair Tennis Championships; what can we expect?
It’s going to be amazing, Great Britain have some of the best players in the world including Gordon Reid, Alfie Hewett and Lucy Shuker. The British Open is the main event, you get to be so close to all the action, it’s an absolutely brilliant few days. And this year it’s free!
Who are you looking forward to seeing?
Lucy Shuker is my absolute tennis hero! Love her! She’s played for years at the top of her game and is the current GB number one. She’s a Paralympic medallist and plans to represent Great Britain at a 4th Paralympics in Tokyo 2020. She is incredible.
What would your advice be to people with health conditions or impairments that feel excluded from sport?
Try It! If you have a physical issue, the moment you find something that gives you the chance to freely move, to achieve or to have fun with abandon, everything will change. The Nottingham Tennis Centre will provide you with a chair. They have regular ‘come and try’ events for people to give wheelchair tennis a go. There will be one happening at the British Open. And if you don’t want to play tennis at every possible opportunity (basically if you are not me) the rates can be quite reasonable, especially if you are entitled to a concession.
At the moment you’re raising funds for a portable daily wheelchair; how can people get involved and support your efforts?
I’m aiming to get a completely portable wheelchair with a motorised add-on so I can get around independently. At the moment I have the wheelchair the NHS gave me when I first fell, it’s too heavy for me to lift or push alone, so with it I have no freedom. I have a Go Fund Me page and I’m hoping to raise the £10,000 needed to buy it. I have already managed to raise over £6,500! People have been so generous and supportive, I’m really humbled by it. I’m also selling some of my music on iTunes and Amazon to raise money to support my tennis. I’ve called the collection “Night Time Acoustics”.
You can donate to Sarah's Go Fund Me page here.