In search of Britain's true tennis soul: I need pills and a brace, but most of all I need to play

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The Independent Online
Wimbledon is here again, prompting much dusting-off of aged rackets, squeezing into school whites and a short-lived surge in court bookings. But what of the year-round amateurs who play summer and winter alike, suffering broken bones and tennis elbow, yearning to perfect their technique and fill the yawning gaps in their social lives? Rosie Millard investigates the game's true diehards.

Penny Wyatt grimaces after a rainy morning's play at Sheen Lawn Tennis Club in south-west London; it was the fifth game of the week and the exertion has done her tennis elbow no good. The offending joint is bound by a bandage and a plastic brace. 'It's to take the pressure off,' says Mrs Wyatt, a 43-year-old actress who plays tennis six or seven times a week throughout the year. 'I couldn't play without it.'

She unsnaps the brace. 'My elbow gets to the state of inflammation where I can't pick the racket up. And then I have to take pills. But I'd rather play with pain than not at all.'

Mrs Wyatt, who began to play serious club tennis about seven years ago, confesses that she did so in order to have a few games with players other than her husband, a television director 'who can't bear to lose. He was a total nightmare to play with. So I joined the club and I discovered it was actually fun. And I got better, quite quickly. I was asked to play on a team, and that was it.'

She is now in the first team and enters as many tournaments as she can: London Parks, Surrey, Tate & Lyle, and the 45 Club Tournament which she and her doubles partner won last summer.

'I don't play for the social side,' she says. I just play for the game.' Her club, where annual membership costs pounds 146, is ideally suited to her; a pavilion like a Nissen hut, all-weather courts and a strong sense of 'taking part'. Rain, hail, snow, thunder - members are out there all year round.

In Mrs Wyatt's case, even an accident from a misplaced smash did not stop her from completing a game. 'My nose was completely broken; one bit of bone went up my forehead, the other along my cheek. I sat in the club house with an icepack, and then went back on court and carried on. And we won.'

(Photograph omitted)