Amherst Ladies On The Rise

Match Report Article posted in the Hastings Independent Press
Amherst 2, Crowborough 2 (Wilson Sandford Winter Doubles -  Ladies League 2)

There is a friendly but deep-seated rivalry in Hastings tennis between its two private clubs: The Green, whose courts are located in the street of that name in St Leonards, and Amherst, tucked on the Hastings side of Summerfield Woods. Each club currently enters five teams in the Tennis Sussex seasonal doubles leagues sponsored by Wilson Sandford. While The Green offers three men’s fours and two women’s, that proportion is is reversed at Amherst. And after some years when The Green Ladies, headed by the formidable pair of Beaula Page and Amanda Ruck, could reasonably regard themselves as the top team in town, that primacy has been reversed over the past year or two as Amherst Ladies have been promoted past them in both summer and winter leagues.


Last Sunday, a miserably damp and grey morning was enlivened by an enthralling contest on the artificial clay courts of Amherst between the home team and visitors Crowborough. The latter’s top pair, a hard-hitting Pole Ania Messenger and athletic Brazilian Lila Dixon, had not dropped a set in any previous league matches this autumn, but were almost toppled by Amherst pair, Jane Garrett and Jo Charter, who lost a contest of almost two hours only in a third set tie-break. Nikki Crowhurst and Debi Ani, Amherst’s second pair, were later comprehensively beaten by Ania and Lila. But each Hastings pairing won in two straight sets against the second-string visiting pair, to tie the match 2-2.


It’s a familiar story for Amherst these days. At this level the opposition often includes professional coaches, fringe county players or other high-rated individuals – but not usually four of them together. The Amherst team, by contrast, has no stars among its six or seven regular players, but a strong team ethic and a mix of playing styles, which enables them to compete overall at this level. They practise together on a regular weekly basis, and captain Jane puts pairings together that will complement their strengths.


Jo has a flat, swinging forehand that can dominate rallies from the back of the court; Nikki hits ground strokes, both forehand and backhand, with enviable power; Debi has superbly aggressive volleying skills; Jane’s  full array of strokes is mixed with a degree of cunning, she rarely plays the same shot twice in a rally; Pearl Hare, not in action last Saturday but featuring in the two previous matches this autumn, also has an excellent all-round game – “steady”, as she likes to call it.


As well as a high standard of play, the general level of sportsmanship and chivalry between players is quite remarkable. Of course it is normal in club tennis to play a highly competitive game without an umpire or line judges, and to trust your opponents’ line calls without demur. But compliments to an opponent for a winning shot or commiserations on a narrow miss are also the norm. Winning or losing, the contestants are enjoying themselves. Would that every sport could be played like that!

After the match the Amherst players were interviewed.

How did you get started as a tennis player?

Jane: I started playing at boarding school at the age of seven. I was an all-round sports enthusiast and very competitive, captaining school teams in netball and rounders, and playing tennis for Berkshire county juniors.


Jo: My father was a very good golfer without ever taking a lesson, and he thought I should learn to play tennis in the same way. I got books out of the library (I remember one by Billie-Jean King) and hit against the garage door. I did join a tennis club in Wimbledon as a junior (West Side, not the All-England) but didn’t play competitions.


Nikki: I was brought up in Hastings, and had some group lessons up to the age of 11, but then effectively stopped. Horse-riding was my main sport. It wasn’t until my own children started playing at Amherst that I returned there and played in ‘rusty rackets’ sessions before playing for the third team, then second, now first.


Pearl: I started at Amherst aged 8, in group coaching sessions with [then coach] John Mayo. I didn’t play in any junior teams or tournaments.


Debi: I used to play in the park but didn’t get lessons or otherwise take it at all seriously until I joined Amherst around seven years ago. Then I got picked for the third team, and have carried on up.


How often do you play currently and do you attend coaching sessions now?


Jane: I play around four times a week, including matches. I have had lessons in recent years from club coaches Jack [Graham] and Ross [Cudmore].


Jo: I try to play twice a week as well as regular matches. I am almost entirely self-taught but had a course of 12 individual lessons from Doug [Keen, top coach at Amherst] this year, and found out what I should be doing – I’m still learning how to hit top spin properly.


Nikki: I play four or five times a week, but don’t have time for coaching, though about three years ago I did seek help with my serve. What has improved me most is playing on a regular basis in a Saturday afternoon club group where I’m the only woman and feel I have to justify my place.


Pearl: I play two or three times a week. I’ve never had any coaching since I was 16 - I don’t have time. Maybe when I retire I’ll get some lessons.


Debi: I play five or six times a week, including regular coaching sessions (both individual and group) with Doug and Peter [Farthing].


What motivates you to keep playing at this level?


Jo: I enjoy the game whether I’m playing competitively or not, but it’s good to challenge ourselves, and as a match player I’m playing different people and responding to different styles of play.


Nikki: It’s nice to do something for myself. Especially if I have had a stressful day, I can come here and hit the ball hard – get everything out! Besides, I’m super-competitive – at everything!


Debi: I always believe that we can improve, whatever our age and ability, to reach our full potential - whatever that may be. And tennis is a very good escape from the usual work and family routines.


Pearl: It’s sociable, it’s good exercise, and I have a good time doing it, relaxed and entirely focused on the game. I wouldn’t want to go running or to the gym – you’d still be thinking about other things there.


Jane: Besides just love of tennis, I really enjoy captaining this team of players, entering the club in the Aegon team tennis league for the first time and winning two successive promotions. It was suggested that we would have to find younger players from outside the club to compete in the singles. I didn’t want that – we are a team as we are.