Tennis: Lost and Found

In Spring 2013 life was good. For five years I had been living out my teenage dream of working in tennis, occasionally traveling to an exotic destination (to cover a Champions Tour event), and the rest of the time working to promote the sport I’d loved for a more than a decade from the comfort of my London flat, overseen and nurtured by the best boss and mentor a person could ever wish for. A mentor who 12 months earlier had suggested that the two of us start and co-present our very own tennis podcast, and just weeks before had helped me secure a place on the BBC 5 Live Wimbledon team. 

Then, for reasons I still can’t fully explain, I gave it all up. It wasn’t logical or strategic – all I know is that at the time I felt had to.

On reflection I can see I had got very depressed. I had become isolated working from home, convinced the normality of an office job with dress-down Fridays and post-work pub trips would provide the comradeship and routine that I craved. I felt rootless, my parents had recently moved to Australia and my beloved dog Bella was no longer a constant and unwavering presence in my life. And I felt a perverse anxiety that I should be applying my brain to something more consequential than sport. It all sounds ridiculous. It was ridiculous. But it was also very real for me at the time, and something had to change.

So I applied for a job in the civil service, and after a successful interview process, did what still remains the most difficult thing I have ever done: I told David Law that I was leaving the excellent job I had with his company, and was instead going to be spending 9 to 5, Monday to Friday, in an office block writing press releases about murderers and paedophiles. 

I can’t speak for how David felt at that moment (probably confused, disappointed and tempted to have me sectioned). But I can tell you how calm and supportive he was. He understood probably more fully than I did at the time that for better or worse this was something my mental health required.

So there I was in July 2013, watching snippets of Wimbledon matches in my lunch breaks, being inducted into the ways of a ‘conventional’ career and battling fellow commuters for a precious seat on the district line. Slowly, I awoke to what a catastrophic decision I had made, and how out of place I was in my new life. I’m well aware, by the way, that it is a life that suits many. I have numerous friends who love their jobs and thrive in the corporate world, many of whom helped spark my curiosity as to whether the grass would be equally green for me there. But I quickly realised I wasn’t cut out for it. Every day it was like putting clothes on that didn’t fit.

David and I continued to record the Tennis Podcast during this period, albeit irregularly. It was the best thing in my life but also a gut-wrenching and agonising reminder of what I had given up. But the vividness of that anguish was important. It focussed my mind and my emotions more sharply than I had ever felt them before. It all suddenly seemed so clear: I had to chase the feeling that I got from recording a podcast. The thrill of talking about something that brought me so much joy; the equal thrill of knowing there were actual human people that enjoyed listening to me talk about it. Providing entertainment to people might not win you a Nobel prize, but it has a valuable place in the world. I realised why it has always irked me when commentators glibly refer to the ‘inconsequentiality of sport’ in the wake of global disasters. The results may be inconsequential in the face of war and famine. But the existence of it isn’t. The existence of sport – the joy, escapism and relief it brings to those that follow it – is an essential antidote to the drudgery and cruelty of the world. 

When I left the civil service in Easter 2014, I had a total of about three full weeks of work lined up, and a couple of leads that could or just as easily could not translate into more.  I’m certain it seemed like an absurd career decision to my bemused and irritated employers at the time, but I knew that I knew something about myself that they didn’t. Something that I had spent every day of the past 10 months learning, and something I might not have unearthed without the help of the podcast: that broadcasting was the thing for me. 

Of course I didn’t snap my fingers and became a broadcaster, nor do I rest on any laurels about having ‘made it’, despite being very proud of the distance I’ve traveled in a relatively short period in broadcasting. I’m well aware of what a fickle and unpredictable industry this is. All I can do is what I’ve been trying to do since Easter 2014 onwards: work hard, be nice to people, and most importantly, believe in myself. 

So that brings me to now. Less than five years later, we have just launched our third Tennis Podcast Kickstarter campaign, a campaign that if successful will secure, for another year, the future of the thing I’m most proud of in my life, the thing that still brings me the most satisfaction, pleasure and poll-vault-related frustration, and the thing to which (along with David Law) I probably owe my career.

I hope this blog helps explain why I care so much about the podcast, why I believe in it, and why I will always owe it more than it owes me. And if I’m allowed the final self-indulgence of a moral to this story, I think it’s that it’s ok to lose your way. Sometimes getting lost is the only way to find the right path.