Sarah Borwell: Former British tennis player

Interviews have been something that we have wanted to do at TSV since day one. This week we kicked things off with our first ever interview by speaking with former British tennis player, Sarah Borwell. Sarah was ranked as high as 65 in the doubles, making her the British number one and achieved a career high singles ranking of 199. We caught up with Sarah and discussed what she is doing now, whether or not taking the American college route into tennis is a good idea, how difficult life on the tour was financially and her views on the current state of British tennis.

Q: First of all, thanks for agreeing to an interview we really appreciate you taking the time out to speak to us. Most of our readers will know you as a former British number one in doubles but why don't you tell us a little bit about what you do now with Tennis Smart?


A: Yeah so when I was on the tour in 2005, I was kind of getting dismayed at how many players dropped out of school to pursue a pro career and having been on the pro circuit for 10 years I knew how cut throat and difficult it was. I started helping British juniors for free with trying to keep them in tennis and school by offering the American university pathway. That grew and I realised that I loved doing that more than I liked competing on the pro tour. It then snowballed into Tennis Smart which is now the leading company in the world for British tennis players looking for American university scholarships. We look after 70% of Brits who are in college right now and we look after them for six years. We not only help with the placement side of things and finding the right fit for them but once they're there we actually mentor and monitor them and make sure that if they do need help or support, we are there on a daily basis. It has been 11 years now and we continue to roll out new initiatives including helping them to find jobs in their junior and senior year, we teach them how to interview and help with their CV. We also have another initiative where we help them get a work visa during the Summer, or when they graduate and they can work in one of the many Cliff Drysdale tennis clubs under the Cliff Drysdale Tennis Management Programme. If they want to stay in the tennis industry, they will be taught how to manage, direct, coach and then once ready, placed into one of the clubs as a director, manager or coach. For those that want to go pro we also help with the transition onto the tour. That is Tennis Smart in a nutshell really, it's been 11 years of work which we will continue to keep adding too.

Tennis Smart - Sarah Borwell

Q: Sounds like you cover all bases and help, not only with the welfare of the player, but also their careers.


A: Yeah, I know for the parents, they are sending their child abroad and it's very stressful, so for them, knowing that I'm at the end of the phone if they need me certainly gives them peace of mind.


Q: If we go back to the start of your career, what was it that got you into tennis?

A: Luckily when I was growing up, just down the road, Tennis World opened and as I was a pretty energetic child, my parents put me into every sport imaginable and the people at Tennis World were just amazing. It is still like my second home now, I go back there as often as I can. It's a small club in Middlesbrough but it's developed so many British juniors that have played for Great Britain. I was very lucky starting out that I had a neighbourhood club that I could walk to that had some of the best coaches. I started at five years old playing mini tennis and I was at Tennis World until I left for University at 18. Nigel Garton was my coach there and he was amazing, he has coached so many good players and we all like to go back there to this day.


Q: Your professional career started relatively late compared to many players on tour due to your tennis scholarship at the University of Houston. How did the opportunity of a scholarship come about for you?


A: We got lucky actually. My Mum and Dad were talking to Brent Parker who was one of the brilliant coaches at Tennis World and he had a friend who just happened to have ties with Rice University, that was actually the first place I went to. Mum did all of the work with the registration and sending in documents. Helping parents now with that and knowing how stressful it is, I really don't know how she managed it because we did it without any guidance. So I ended up at Rice University in my Freshman year which for tennis, it was top 30, but academically it was like Oxford and for me, although I work hard I'm certainly not Oxford material. My best friend Joanna Cunliffe, who works for the LTA, actually went to the University of Houston so I transferred there after my first year. The team was great there and the facilities were amazing.


Q: So how hard was it to keep on top of your studies whilst also harbouring a dream of becoming a professional tennis player and putting so much effort into that?


A: It was hard at Rice just because it was so tough academically and the workload was so big. Although Houston is a great University for academics and the business degree is excellent, it's obviously not Oxford standard and so it was a lot more manageable. As a student athlete you have so many people around you as a support team that all you actually have to think about is going to class, studying and turning up for the tennis and working hard. Everyone had two coaches, you had a fitness trainer, academic advisors, tutors, physios, psychologists, nutritionists, so although your days were busy they are so structured and so supported with this group around you.


Q: The dilemma of whether to play college tennis or turn pro at 18 for example is something we have covered on the website previously (here). What do you see the main benefits of the US college system being for young players?

University of Houston - Cougars
Borwell went to the University of Houston on a tennis scholarship.

A: When I went at 18 my age group was meant to be one of the best ever, we had some of the very best juniors in the world coming through and when I graduated at 22 years old, they had all quit. Everyone thinks that is shocking but it happens all the time, you go pro at 18, you're not physically ready, you're not mentally ready, you're certainly not emotionally ready and financially you can only really afford a few years and then you run out of money. You see it every year where players get to 20 years old and think “I'm not making any money, I'm travelling all the time, I'm living in really cheap and nasty hotels, I'm away from my family, this isn't for me”. Instead of coming to that realisation of the tour not being what you want while your on it with no academics, for me, I think it is better to figure out your level in the safer environment of University. There have been countless players who have gone to university in America, thinking they want to go pro, thinking they are good enough but if you're not getting ranked in college and you're not beating the elite players you soon realise that if your not good enough for a university ranking then you're clearly not going to transition well to the pro tour. For me, everyone, unless you won a Grand Slam as a junior, should go to university for at least a year. The tour is always going to be there, there will never be enough money at the lower end, you are going to have to spend over £50,000 a year just to supplement your career, so you may as well go to college where you get a $200,000 scholarship given to you, a group around you who are going to look after you and your going to get match after match to just build that confidence and develop. You can always leave university after a year and go pro if you want to. If your winning nationals in America and beating everyone and it's too easy then you have got your answer, you know that you're good enough to go pro. Many players that turn pro at 18 get stuck in those lower ITF tournaments and end up losing confidence so that is why, for me, University is a must. It gives you a safety net and gives you time to decide if it is right for you and if you are good enough.

Q: On the finances, it is well documented that tennis doesn't pay vast sums of money for those that aren't at the very top level of the game. With the prize money being even less in doubles and tournaments often in far flung countries, how hard was it to balance your finances whilst playing?


A: It was impossible really. I was number 2 in Great Britain for singles and 199 in the world and I was £10,000 in debt. I was playing really good tournaments but struggling financially. I was shifting credit cards to 0% and just juggling it that way. It came to a point in 2006 where I was playing at the WTA event in Birmingham and I had a wildcard playing Melanie South, a young British junior at the time. Whoever won that match was going to get a wildcard into the Wimbledon main draw for singles and I knew that if I didn't win and get that wildcard, I probably wouldn't be able to continue because I was in too much debt and it was too much of a struggle. I won the match, got the wildcard for Wimbledon and won a round there, which at that point gave me about, I don't know, £15,000 which paid off my debts and gave me £5000 to play with. So without winning that match and without that wildcard from Wimbledon and the LTA, I probably would have stopped in 2006. Just after Wimbledon I had another injury and I thought I'd become a doubles specialist and that's when it started to pay off a little more but it did take me about six years to start making money.


Q: So I guess when you look back, it is probably fair to say that worries about money interfered with your performance on court, going into matches thinking “I could really do with winning this one for the financial benefit to keep yourself on tour”.


A: Yeah it's very stressful, not knowing how you can afford to pay for food and travel. Some of the hotels we stayed in were horrible, you were having to share rooms with loads of other people to keep costs down and you weren't travelling with a coach. You look at what Andy Murray has achieved and what the top players have around them, they have a wonderful team that help them with everything they need but when you are starting out on the ITF tour you are pretty much on your own. It gets harder and harder each year because it costs more to fly these days, hotels are more expensive and there are more people on the tour. It is a difficult lifestyle, one year I went around the globe twice playing in tournaments. So it's tough but also rewarding because you get to see the world at a young age and you're doing something that you enjoy.


Q: Something that people may not know, you touched on it earlier, is that you won a bronze medal in the mixed doubles at the 2010 Commonwealth Games with Ken Skupski. How was the experience of competing at a Commonwealth Games?

2010 Commonwealth Games - Borwell Skupski
Borwell and Skupski (right) winning bronze at the 2010 games.

A: It was incredible, I'd actually been out injured for a long time, it's what ended my career, I had a severe head injury. I was playing in the Stanford WTA and got hit in the head and had a really bad contusion and concussion like symptoms and so I hadn't actually played for a while, so for my first tournament back to be the Commonwealth Games where they had never had tennis before was an incredible experience. You realise what track athletes go through where they work four years for something and get one opportunity. With tennis you know that if you don't do well one week you can go somewhere else and play again the next but this was our only opportunity to ever win a medal and stand on the podium. For me, as it was pretty much the end of my career it was an incredible experience to have right before I retired. Playing doubles with Ken, experiencing life in Dehli and being surrounded by the other athletes in the athlete village was excellent, it was just a really nice reward for the 10 years of tennis. I could bow out with a bronze medal which I know not many people will have ever been able to do.  

Q: You reached a career high doubles ranking of 65. When you look back on your career do you feel that you achieved everything your ability would allow or do you believe that certain things held you back from climbing even further?


A: I think everyone has injuries, it's just part and parcel of it all. One reason I am a massive advocate of Brits heading to America, or at least having options, is that I wasn't a great junior. I was talented and had a really amazing coach but the difference for me was that I worked hard and never gave up. I had a lot of set backs as a junior because I never got funded, I never really got much support from the federation, I didn't have much confidence about my tennis and found it very stressful playing, even though my parents didn't put any pressure on me and the coaches were very supportive. I think I maxed out what I had, my game was big, I had a big serve, big forehand but also soft hands for slice and volleys but mentally I wasn't good enough in all honesty and that's the biggest part of tennis. Maybe if I had played a little longer I would have got higher but to get to 65 in the world in doubles and represent my country was good for a girl from Middlesbrough.


Q: As we speak, in the singles there is just one British woman ranked inside the WTA top 100. Why do you think Great Britain has struggled to produce a female Grand Slam winner since Virginia Wade in 1977?


A: It's just a difficult sport, every nation in the world plays and we are not blessed with the best weather so unlike America, where it is generally sunny most of the year, I can walk five minutes from my house and play on really nice floodlit hard courts for free, in Britain you can't really do that. If it's raining you have to go indoors and indoor courts cost a lot of money which can be difficult for families. British tennis over the last year or so has actually had the best results its ever had, we won Davis Cup, Johanna Konta reached the top 10, Heather Watson, Laura Robson and Naomi Broady have all been top 100 so we are actually in the best shape we have ever been. It's not an easy sport to dominate in, America are finding that too, even though their infrastructure is amazing, when its a global sport you won't always be a powerhouse.


Q: Are there any young British players that you think people should be watching out for over the next few years?


A: From my point of view, the last two years have been the highest level of British juniors going out to America. We had Emily Arbuthnott go to Stanford University, she was a top 30 junior and is hoping to go pro. She's a Freshman and could be one to watch when she graduates. We have Julian Cash at Oklahoma State who is a wonderful doubles player. Julian was number one in college doubles, top 50 for singles and he wants to go pro when he graduates. In the next two or three years we will have a lot coming through which is exciting as it is what I was hoping to achieve 11 years ago. There is Katie Swan who was a top junior in the world, she was looking at University and they kept that option open for a long time but at the end of the day she was a top 10 junior getting to the semi finals of junior Grand Slams, so for her, the decision was to go pro. Swan is definitely one to watch over the coming years.


Q: Of course you will know Anne Keothavong very well who has had a great start in her job with the British Fed Cup team. As a former Fed Cup player yourself would you ever consider joining the coaching team there if the opportunity came up?

A: I'd always love to but it's so difficult as I live in America. Anne is a good friend and I think she was the perfect person for the job, she is very passionate about British tennis, she is highly competitive and she works harder than anyone. If I was ever to move back to Britain and they wanted me in some capacity I would absolutely love that, being part of a team is always something I have enjoyed. So yes, it is something I would never say no to but for now, being over here it is difficult but it is something that I would always be very proud of if it ever came around.

Q: Can you ever see yourself moving into a full time coaching role for an individual professional tennis player?


A: No (laughs). No I don't miss the tour at all, you couldn't pay me enough to want to live that kind of lifestyle again. I was lucky enough to coach Ruth Seaborne, she was 15 and while I was on the tour I helped her. She made junior Wimbledon, won a round and we got her out to an American university and she's now a coach at the University of Iowa, so to be able to see her develop from a 15 year old to now coaching in America was really rewarding. Nicola Slater too, I said I would help to coach her and within six months we had got her to 165 in the world in doubles and playing main draw doubles at Wimbledon. So for the small stints I have had in coaching it was very enjoyable and rewarding but I didn't have to travel on a weekly basis. With Tennis Smart and how we are trying to expand, I just wouldn't have the time, nor the inclination, to jump on a plane every week and be away from my son and family.

Borwell Hingis World Team Tennis
Borwell and Hingis as doubles partners in World Team Tennis.

Q: Finally, who do you consider to be the best players you played with and against during your career?


A: I was lucky enough to play World Team Tennis which is a really brilliant invention by Billie Jean King. I played for the New York Buzz and my doubles partner was Martina Hingis which was incredible. I'd never really played doubles with someone of that level and to see how often her returns went in and how she very rarely made mistakes was amazing. I also played with Cara Black who was one of the greatest doubles players of all time. I beat John McEnroe and Kim Clijsters at the World Team Tennis in mixed doubles which was pretty cool. I have been lucky enough to play against a lot of the top players like Serena, Venus and Sharapova the year she won Wimbledon. Playing with Hingis was really eye opening and enjoyable. Getting totally destroyed by Ana Ivanovic in the second round of Wimbledon was equally eye opening but not so enjoyable.  


You can follow Sarah Borwell on Twitter here and find out more about Tennis Smart here