As London disappears in her rear-view-mirror and with the metropolis having suffered fresh tragedy, Annabel Croft stresses that what she’s about to tell me needs to be placed in the most rigorous of contexts.
When she quit playing tennis it was simply that she’d had enough of the touring and the losing and the loneliness, that was all. No one actually died out there. It is mention of “dark places” which causes Croft to check herself. “This sounds pathetic, doesn’t it?” she says. “And given everything that’s going on in the world right now, in my city, I really don’t want to make what happened to me seem the slightest bit bigger than it was.”
We’re talking late at night as the Eurosport pundit drives to Nottingham for the Aegon Open, the first stop in her most intense period of following the tennis caravanserai round the world for TV and radio.
That spell climaxes at Wimbledon for the BBC, where it’s her job to describe and analyse the successes of others – and the failures.
Finally in her second career in the media she’s made it back to the sport which so utterly dominated her young life. To get there she did some truly remarkable things. Truly banal, weird and ludicrous things as well. In good time we’ll get to how she slept rough on the streets, wrestled with a Page 3 “stunna” and tried to survive on a desert island with gangster Reggie Kray’s adopted son.
But, back to tennis. Croft, now 50, is the chartered surveyor’s daughter from Kent who, with her big, bouncing curls and Bambi-esque legs, seemed ideal material for one of those great British strawberry-sweet summer sporting romances when the nation turns into tennis fanatics and fusses and coos over a potential home champion. But although she won the title of Wimbledon’s best girl and was also junior champ of Australia, climbing as high as 21 in the world following her solitary title success in San Diego, Croft walked away from tennis at only 21.
She explains: “I just woke up one day and decided: ‘I don’t want to do this anymore.’ I couldn’t get on the next plane to the next tournament. Tennis had been my life since I was really young – nine years old. All I’d ever done was wake up and get into a tracksuit. I needed to put on normal clothes in the mornings and not worry about my backhand.
“I was really unhappy. I wasn’t enjoying tennis at all. I remember my mum saying to me: ‘Your heart’s not in this anymore, is it?’ That was a relief. Then [Australian great] John Newcombe gave me a heart-to-heart. He told me I needed to get away to decide whether I really wanted to continue in the game. I already pretty much knew I didn’t.”
In the pulverising, unforgiving world of elite sport, Croft’s story could be written up as that of yet another casualty, the tale of someone who couldn’t quite cut it at the highest level. She considers the especially pulverising world of tennis: “It’s combat, basically. Every day it’s an antagonistic situation, then you get ready for another one tomorrow.
“This is what makes it so gripping for the spectators. Ultimately tennis players are modern-day gladiators with racquets instead of swords. When we watch them, yes, there’s a physical element to the contest and an artistic one but there’s also the psychological aspect of two people hammering each other to find out basically who’s got the biggest balls.”
Did Croft find herself wanting in that department? Well, she thinks she was plenty tough in her teens otherwise she’d have never gotten herself round the tour as often as she did. “I grew up incredibly fast,” she says. “From the age of 12 I was representing my country and every weekend I’d be on ferries to Holland or heading to Sweden, Germany or France for these international tournaments. It was a time of no internet or mobile phones so these trips took some organising, which I had to do myself. I’m a mum now and know I’ve mollycoddled my three children and fretted about them trekking round the world. At 16 and 17 I did that on my own.
“There were Greyhound bus trips across America, 4am rides in the company of drug addicts and the like. I tried to save as much money as possible when I was travelling so I could pay for coaches and eat well which inevitably meant staying in some very budgety places, really weird hotels. These things didn’t bother me, The travelling was always the most exciting part of tennis and I think the experience of it stood me in good stead.
“It’s unbelievably tough to get through juniors and I did. A lot of kids fall by the wayside but I think I’m pretty determined. I’m not a wishy-washy person.
“But, while I was mature in some ways, I was immature in others. I probably needed to have gone to university to understand what a kid my age should have been thinking and doing but of course I didn’t go. I didn’t even sit my A-levels. So I missed out on a big, important chunk of growing up: parties, boys, socialising, drinking, smoking. Within all of that there would probably have been some life lessons. My two oldest children, Amber and Charlie, both went to uni in Edinburgh which must be one of the greatest places in the world to study and visiting them I was very envious. When my friends were students I quite liked being different, making my way in tennis, being absolutely focused on it. But I did miss out. I’m sure Andy Murray would say the same.”
We talk about the Murrays and Andy’s prospects for Wimbledon. She thinks the champ can retain his title. “Of course Andy can win Wimbledon again and he can do it this year with the form he found at the French Open. Rafa Nadal is a contender again, Roger Federer has been saving himself for the championships but maybe Novak Djokovic is still in a difficult place. Guys like Nick Kyrgios and Alexander Zverev could be dangerous opponents for Andy but he’s become tough to be beat in Britain and it will take a special performance to achieve that.”
We also discuss mum Judy’s admission that she regretted sending Jamie to boarding school aged 12 and that this probably damaged his tennis career. “That was fascinating because when I look at Jamie I see an incredibly popular, charming, lovely man who’s risen to No 1 in doubles and will probably continue to be just as successful when he stops playing so I hope he doesn’t have any regrets. But Judy is a wonderful ambassador for tennis and what she and her family have achieved is a story that will go down in history.”
Did Croft feel the pressure of being her generation’s great hope in whites for British success and did that prey on her? “Looking back, it probably did and that’s another area where I wished I’d had more maturity. When I was trying to deal with loss after loss after loss after loss and spiralling downwards, everything was accentuated by being in the public eye.
“But ultimately what did for me was the loneliness. At first I was excited about being on tour. I was going to be playing all these women I’d admired. But the reality, the combat, the relentlessness of it, is that you don’t have any friends. I’m a sociable person, I got on well at school, but women together travelling round tournaments isn’t like that.
“Was it bitchy? Let’s just say everyone wanted to beat each other. I realised I couldn’t put any emotional feelings out there because I could have been showing my vulnerability to someone who was going to be my opponent the following week. I was really lonely and started thinking I’d chosen the wrong path. I knew I wanted to get married and have kids. I had a vision of the future: still engaged in combat, because that’s exactly what it was, until I was 30-plus. I just blew up.”
What Annabel Did Next would make a ripping yarn for girls’ dorms, except that publishers would probably have rejected the premise as too fantastical. One minute Croft had a serious tennis career; the next she was on a yacht for the first time in her life, setting sail in her new life as a telly action girl.
“I suppose it was an early reality show,” she says of Cudmore’s Call, the 1988 BBC series in which nautical novices learned port from starboard for a race round the Channel Islands. “That was the first time in my life I’d got up, not gone to the tennis court and instead hung around with normal people. I loved it.” By normal she means Eamonn Holmes, then an obscure Belfast reporter, and Peter Skellern, the 1970s pop balladeer.
She enjoyed the group dynamic, something usually denied a tennis player. “I remember doing some psychological testing at Loughborough University which concluded that I was really a frustrated team player. Maybe I should have stuck in at my hockey!” The show was also where she met her future husband, America’s Cup yachtsman Mel Coleman.
The call had gone out from TV for a personable, plucky heroine, but this was only the start. Janet Street-Porter’s Network 7 asked if she’d like to be flown out to Sri Lanka and dumped in the middle of the ocean along with actor Simon O’Brien (Damon from Brookside), Parkhurst Prison inmate Pete Gillett and a merchant banker. “‘Yes, please,’ I said. “That took me a world away from tennis – right the way back to being a cavewoman.
“We were given a machete, a roll of loo paper, a tinder-box and a chicken. No food or water and we had to build our own shelter. If you speak to ITV producers they’ll tell you that was I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! in its rawest form. They wouldn’t be able to treat the contestants like that now. Health & Safety would stop them!
“But I had the most amazing time. I wasn’t stressed about winning tennis matches. Instead I was talking to a man about how he ended up in jail. Armed robbery as it turned out, so he was quite a dangerous character. We had to live without light, credit cards or money – it was literally survival. We ate coconuts until someone eventually killed the chicken. I couldn’t eat it – not after it had been one of the gang.”
Treasure Hunt was next, Croft stepping into the action-girl role vacated by Anneka Rice. “Jumping in and out of helicopters, running across the lawns of stately homes – that was my idea of fun.” The Treasure Hunt money-shot was of the energetic presenter, lycra-clad, filmed from behind – did she feel exploited? “I’d run around tennis courts in short skirts so that didn’t bother me.”
Another frantic game show, Interceptor, had the same rural pile fetish. “As you can see we’re outside a very beautiful sandstone manor house in Upper Slaughter,” trilled Croft typically, but to no avail. “That was a disaster. It got absolutely panned. I’ve had a few of those but to be honest, after the tennis tour and what was said about me when I’d lost, the criticism was water off a duck’s back.
“I’ve been involved with quite a few telly stinkers,” she laughs. “My view was that I had to put myself out there. If you didn’t try something, you’d never know. Celebrity Wrestling was another bad one. It wasn’t called that originally, and I thought I was going into a show with various sporting challenges, a bit like Superstars which I’d done and enjoyed, only to suddenly find myself in the ring fighting a Page 3 girl. The competitive instinct kicked in. I said to myself: ‘I used to be a professional athlete. I can’t lose this.’ And I didn’t.”
Indeed, Croft was the overall winner, but by the time the failing show was shifted to the graveyard slot in the schedules, hardly anyone was still watching.
A far more rewarding experience was the BBC’s Famous, Rich and Homeless. Croft signed up for the challenge of living penniless on the streets after being convinced of the programme’s stated aim: to improve understanding of those sleeping rough. “I’m afraid my own perception when I saw them sitting on the pavements was to give them them a wide berth.
“It would have been: ‘Look at you begging for money when you’re young and you’ve got two arms and two legs. Why don’t you get up and work like the rest of us?’
“It never occurred to me that these people might not have parents, that they might have been abused in foster homes, and that running away and sleeping rough without a passport or ID was maybe better than being buggered.
“I encountered a range of people who’d ended up on the streets for a variety of reasons: prisoners, war veterans, some who’d had marriage break-ups, alcoholics, drugs addicts and kids as young as 16 and 17, amazing musicians, whose parents had just swanned off to Australia leaving them behind. And then there was James from Scotland who appeared one night asking if her could share my cardboard box.
“He was an alcoholic. The family hotel business had required him to organise activities for guests but he was very shy and couldn’t do it without a drink. Then one became two. He was in a bad way when I met him, not eating and probably heading for death. After the series I did a follow-up for radio where I tracked him down and now he’s completely turned his life around. He’s become a nurse, runs marathons, loves cooking and he’s an absolute inspiration. I’ve got him tickets for Wimbledon a few times and he still texts me every fortnight. I love hearing from him and always tell him how proud I am of him.”
Croft has gone from a dark place into the light but once again stresses that perspective is required. For her friend the leap has been greater.