14 September 2018

From writing about tennis to playing it!

Nigel Billen

Nigel is the co-founder of Local Tennis Leagues but how did he get into the sport in the first place?

I always loved tennis as a child, but I was an armchair spectator, not a player. It all started one summer when I had a broken leg - I became addicted to Wimbledon on television, an unashamed cheerleader for the brash, young Jimmy Connors. I didn't start playing until years later when fearing middle-aged immobility I thought I'd better take up a sport. 

I actually began on a tennis holiday in Portugal organised by Jonathan Markson. I remember ringing his company out of blue and caught, purely by chance the late, great Jonathan on the phone. "How much of a beginner are you he asked?" I didn't even have a racket! When I got to the resort very generously the company laid on an extra coach just for my partner, Sally and me. I was hooked. In fact we extended the holiday a week just so we could keep on playing.

But my tennis career took an unexpected turn. I've been a journalist all my working life and a friend spotted that the LTA were looking for an editor for its magazine ACE. And so began an amazing five years getting deeper in to the sport. I was really lucky and met some great people. Greg Rusedski was a friend of the magazine, and now he's a friend of Local Tennis Leagues. I interviewed a young Andy Murray, Tim Henman of course and many others but I never did catch up with Jimmy Connors. Who was my favourite? That would be invidious, but it's fair to say Roger Federer lives up to all expectations.

Sally and I began the leagues more or less by accident. We just wanted to play matches and more tennis and we lived by a great set of local park courts in Highbury, north London. Gradually the leagues mushroomed - I was always going to write about them in the magazine but never quite got round to it! Instead, Local Tennis Leagues took over our lives and became a full time job!

As a player, I think I'm still improving, although my results don't quite show that. I've played in numerous rounds of numerous leagues - it's the best way to see if everything is working. And I share what everyone else says; it is meeting the other players and getting to know them that is the most fun of all.

What am I most excited about now? Probably our next visit to the Rafa Nadal Academy in Mallorca for the ITF Seniors event. Of course I'll be blown off court (again) but that doesn't matter. Everyone is so much fun and there is always a friendly doubles match on offer to give you a chance of winning something! Last time we were there for the ITF tournament Rafa was on site all week. Of course I hope he is injury free and off on Tour somewhere, but if he is around it will certainly be a bonus.

Final thoughts? Only to thank all the players who have taken part in the leagues over the years. You are Local Tennis Leagues and without you none of this would ever happened.

Above, Nigel at the Rafa Nadal Academy by Movistar in Mallorca. Find out more about this autumn's trip to the Academy for the ITF Seniors event.