'I punched the skies, as if I'd just won Wimbledon...'

When she found herself in a knock-up with Wayne Ferreira, the tennis world's no 8, Vicky Ward kept her nerve but lost her heart

It was when he refused a pre-match cup of coffee that I really started to feel sick with nerves. For some incomprehensible reason Wayne Ferreira, the blonde South African ranked eighth in world tennis, had agreed to a pre-tournament "casual practice session" with me and a few other journalists. "The aim," said British LTA coach James Lenton, "is to show you how the pros do it, to find the common denominator between his tennis and yours."

Yeah, right. Surreptitiously, as we drank our coffee, and he sipped his water, we organised a sweepstake - pounds 6 to the person who could make one winning shot or serve. Looking at him standing there so cool, so unflustered, so - it has to be said - seriously handsome, the only thing I was concerned about was making a total fool of myself. I was the only female and already there was macho talk of serves of over 100mph.

To start with, I partnered Ferreira. I stood on his left and whacked my first rusty forehand to the opposition. It whistled miles out. Ferreira, thankfully, wasn't looking.

The next one was better, as was the one after. The opposition was absolutely hopeless. I began to relax. Ferreira, I thought, had noticed my double- handed backhand, which, even if I say it myself, has always been rather good. A few more pats to the opposition, whose game was fast degenerating. "So do you play tennis?" asks Ferreira between taking shots. After at least two minutes' play this seems almost rude. "Actually, I'm a member of Queen's," I reply stiffly. "Really?" He looks all animated. "Don't you just love the grass?"

Actually, members are not allowed to play on the grass until after pros like him have massacred it in the Stella Artois. I tell Ferreira this and he looks incredulous. "But that's terrible," he says. "You ought to be able to use it most of the year."

By now, I am in love. Not only does he play tennis like a dream, he is bright and principled. I feel like fainting, but am not allowed to because Fenton barks at me to come and play against Ferreira. He is to volley while I alternate forehands and backhands no matter where the ball bounces.

"I'll try and send them to the right places," says Ferreira, which makes me feel awfully guilty, because all I want to do is win that sweepstake. Not so easy, I discover. He is like a wall at the net and swapping between forehand and backhand is sapping my strength. Finally, though, I achieve it - one down the tramlines, low and whistling. I am so euphoric that I raise my left arm and punch the skies, as if I have just won Wimbledon. "Yes!" I shout and he looks rather surprised. I have just broken a rule of professional tennis etiquette, I realise. A knock-up is only a knock- up.

Afterwards, I get a chance to talk to him properly. Does he ever get nervous? "Sometimes, if it's a final or if the opposition is really tough. The key thing is to breathe deeply and hold on to your serve in the first few games." How does he prepare for Wimbledon? "Practice, practice, practice." Relaxation techniques? "I play golf with a friend, and this year I'm going fishing." Does he drink alcohol? "Actually, one beer can be quite good for you, because of the carbohydrates." Pause. His eyes twinkle. "But only one." Does he eat of a lot of bananas?" He stares as if I am quite mad. "I eat pretty much like anybody else. If I'm playing in the morning, I'll have a big breakfast, cereal and pancakes, or if I'm playing in the afternoon I'll have a big lunch."

Finally I ask what I really want to know: any tips for my game? "Well, you and me, we're on the same level. You just need to practise," he says. To my amazement he is not joking. "You know how to hit the ball properly," he says. "You must know that all you need to do is play lots."

Earlier, I'd heard him saying that 28 was the age when it became too late to try to win Wimbledon - which means I've got three years. Right then if he'd offered to coach me, I would have abandoned everything and gone for it. As it was, when I woke the next day my aching limbs reminded me that it takes more than a burst of coeur d'esprit to make a champion.

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