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Sunday, June 26, 2022

In conversation with Annabel Croft

UK women’s number one, raised in the idylls of Kent, with a WTA ranking threatening the world’s top 20 aged just 18. This is not, however, another Emma Raducanu article — “she’s achieved an enormous amount more than me!”, Annabel Croft is swift to interject when I offer up the comparison over our Zoom call. Who better, though, to gauge the current state of women’s tennis (currently a nexus of debates over mental health, media circuses, and political activism) than Croft. After winning the junior competitions at Wimbledon and the Australian Open, then Virginia Slims in 1985, Annabel Croft was the darling of British tennis. Three years later, however, she retired from the game, citing a lack of enjoyment. Now a successful commentator, she really has seen the game from all sides of the court.

“I’ve interviewed Osaka since she was really young”, Croft responds when I bring up the highest-paid female athlete in the world, who has also revealed she isn’t enjoying the game anymore, “it was always a bit like “Oh, god, you’re going to get one-word answers and it’s going to be a bit of a disaster” because you never got anything out of her. But as I watched her develop and become a great player —” It is at this point that our discussion is briefly interrupted by the delivery of what I believe to be some garden furniture, leaving the trajectory of Osaka’s career hanging in the balance. “— that she seemed far more comfortable with it”, the answer continues, “I sat there in press conferences, and she would be quite engaging and enjoy the banter back and forth with the press.” What, then, of her recent tryst with the organisers of Roland Garros, who threatened Osaka with possible disqualification after she decided to not participate in post-match media conferences? “As I understand it, and I don’t know this to be a fact I think it might have taken her whole team by surprise as well.”

Croft, as someone who has seen both sides of the sport, offers a perspective that is both analytical and empathetic, especially when it comes to the loses: “it’s very lonely, enormous pressure on your shoulders, and you are taking 100% responsibility for what happens … you feel like the world’s about to end and you’re about to throw yourself off a cliff. When you’re a sports person that’s never done anything else in your life since the age of seven or eight than hit tennis balls, sport it is it everything to you.” I wonder if she agrees, then, with Osaka’s decision to remove herself from the press side altogether. “Well, that’s where women’s tennis has opened up this really interesting debate because sport is such an amazing teacher to the individual about themselves and about life. Because it teaches you humility, and how to cope with defeats and disappointments. And that’s a really important factor in life: you can’t win everything.”

In all the debates surrounding women’s tennis, one thing that stands out is how young these professional athletes are: Osaka won her first, highly controversial, US Open aged just 20, and Emma Raducanu has just become an international celebrity months after finishing her A-Levels. Here, we begin to reflect on how Croft managed these defeats and disappointments with newfound fame as a teenager. “I was splashed across all the front pages of the newspapers. And, you know, it was a bit overwhelming. It all happened very, very quickly.” The tour, of course, was slightly different in the 80s, less Met Gala and more Greyhound bus stations: “I was booking my own travel by hanging around on phones to try and get to the next tournament, trying to book a flight in the middle of the night and booking my travel lodge somewhere.”

Like Osaka, it seems, it wasn’t Croft’s game that caused her strife, but the immense pressure of expectations. “I also think that by today’s modern standards, when I quit at 21 —” there is a pause here, and the words become more deliberate, more considered, “—Looking back, if I was in today’s world, that would have been mental health issues, for sure. I mean, no question about it.” The support systems currently available to tennis players, most of whom now work with sports psychologists, were simply not present in Croft’s day: “I was heading off to see psychotherapists in Harley Street. He was a marriage guidance counsellor or something! He was doing his best to try and understand tennis, but…” What could have been different, then, if Annabel Croft, British number one, had been playing today? “That’s my only regret, I suppose”, she starts, then quickly corrects herself, “I always for 30 years said I’ve never regretted anything… But my only regret would be that I didn’t have sports psychology to help me.”

This is by no means to say that Croft’s career halted after her retirement. After some primetime hosting gigs, she has become one of the country’s most well-renowned tennis experts, commentating with Sky Sports, the BBC, Eurosport, and Prime Video. A valued member of the British tennis establishment, her experience as both player and pundit provides invaluable guidance to up and coming stars: “I’m always so wanting to help some of the younger ones to understand that the media fits together with the whole circus — you need both to work together to be able to have the platform, and I think a lot of them just treat the media as the enemy.” Are they? “I mean, I’ve sat in press conferences, and some journalists are unbelievable, they’ll just go straight for the jugular. And I guess that could be quite frightening for some people.” One thinks, perhaps, not only of Naomi Osaka, but of Jo Konta, or John McEnroe’s response to Raducanu’s Wimbledon withdrawal (“it makes you look at the guys that have been around and the girls for so long. How well they can handle it”).  

With her first-hand experience of growing up on the tour, Croft explains the duty of care she feels as a pundit: “personally, I always know that when you’re asking questions of an individual who has just lost a match, you do need to be sensitive to it.” And this sensitivity helps to shape Croft’s own interview technique: “there are certain ways of posing a question which will get the subject talk – you might say something like, ‘Well, I know you must be very disappointed about today. But could you just give us your take on what happened today?’ And that’s a more gentle way.”

“I’m in a different category,” Croft continues, “because I’ve been on that side of it, and now the other side …” There is, however, an economic necessity to these press conferences, which only becomes apparent in her current role in the tennis machine: “we’re all trying to sell the sport and all of it adds up together to get advertising and sponsorship. That’s how the players are enabled to make their money. … I never understood it when I was a player, but as a media person, all I know is that my producer wants to fill a certain amount of airtime. And we don’t really mind what that content is. Better content’s going to engage more with people and that might encourage more sponsorship, if your viewing figures go up. If you get boring interviews, then that’s not going to attract the audience, is it?” As stars like Serena Williams begin to wind down their tennis careers — the much-proclaimed changing-of-the-guard — the status of the sport’s new figureheads, Osaka included, will be dictating the future of the game. “It’s a tricky one, isn’t it?”, Croft ponders, “because if somebody is having mental health issues, they need to have helped with that; but equally, women’s sport generally has been looking for bigger platforms to be able to equal out with the men. Suddenly, that’s been given this kind of full stop.” For all the difficulties of holding these two perspectives — an understanding of the pressure placed on the individual but also the individual’s role in the wider economies of sport — she does, it seems, come down on one side of the Osaka debate: “It’s never good to actually try to take on media, I think it’s a losing battle, they will always have the power to write whatever they want to write.”

After everything that Croft has experienced, her journalistic attitude is one that seems to be increasingly rare, one that is inflected with compassion and empathy, from the perspective of a player who understands what it’s like to lose a game it feels like your life depends on. One thing I am struck by throughout our conversation is the interest she takes in my own thoughts — “What’s made you think that?” she asks when I ask if media antagonism has gotten worse with social media, “maybe I’ve missed something that I haven’t seen?” To have such an expert on the game actively engage with the opinions of a 20-year-old English student is incredibly refreshing. It is no wonder that the LTA value Croft’s experience enough to ask her to help teach the rising stars about media engagement. Reassuringly, she is also a fan of what she calls ‘old school journalism’, “that still needs to take place to ask those difficult questions that perhaps you may not want to answer, but where we find out something about you.” Her take on the value of the press conference speaks to the career of a woman who faced enormous pressure and converted it into something unexpected, but enormously beneficial to players and audiences around the country, one Emma Raducanu included: “it’s an old cliche, but you do learn more from your losses than your wins, you learn a lot more about yourself.”

Image Credit: AIB London/CC BY 2.0

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