Female British tennis players broke a Wimbledon record this year when they earned six of the eight coveted Wildcard places in the oldest tennis tournament in the world. Katie Boulter, Harriet Dart, Katy Dunne, Gabriella Taylor, Naomi Broady and Katie Swan all scooped a spot, and together they’re being dubbed the next generation of top tennis players. We spoke to youngest of the group, 19-year-old Katie Swan, who in her Wimbledon debut beat the 25th best player in the world, Irina-Camelia Begu, to understand just how someone so young becomes a Wimbledon Wildcard…
‘I loved [tennis] literally from the very first ball,’ says Katie, who was introduced to the game at age seven, when her mum arranged tennis lessons for her while on a family holiday to Portugal. ‘Even though the lessons were meant to be a bit of fun, I was really intent on learning the skills quickly and was so focused on the sessions,’ she continued, ‘one of the coaches noticed that I had a natural eye for the sport and encouraged me to take some more lessons when I returned from holiday, which I did, and the rest is history.’
Deciding to take tennis from a hobby to a professional career, this is Swan's first full year as a senior, having previously faced a difficult transition year playing junior and senior tournaments.
'It started to get more and more difficult to play the junior events, mainly because I was putting a lot of pressure on myself because I was ranked quite high in the junior rankings,' she explained, 'when I started to play seniors, I had a lot less pressure on me in terms of ranking, but I had to work much harder to win matches. I found it quite difficult to start with but the pressure of having to beat players much older and better than me was good for me and it didn't take me long to start really embracing and enjoying the senior events.'
But does being brought in this year as a Wimbledon wild card mean she feels like she's proven herself? 'It is something I feel like I worked really hard for and I'm really grateful to receive it', she says, 'it's really nice to know that the All England Club believe in me and want to give me a chance to play at the Championships.'
What I want to know is how far she sees herself going in this year's tournament - but she refuses to get ahead of herself: 'Success isn't something I like to focus on too much, what's more important to me is that I work as hard as I can to ensure that every week I am in the best possible position to win tennis matches' she continues, 'and for me that's what is important, as long as I'm putting the hard work in, I know that eventually the results and the success will follow.'
We're talking just as it's announced that Wimbledon has followed suit of the US Open and chose to account for maternity leave and pregnancy in its seeding placement, meaning that women can return from pregnancy and still hold the same seed as before. This comes after Serena Williams was unseeded in the French Open after her year out of the game.
Her rank dropped to 183 in the world, and so her seed took a hit. However, Serena has since been seeded 25th at Wimbledon, as the tournament chose to give her the same treatment players get after returning from the game post injury. While the move is considered a success for women in the game, it has also been criticised for forcing other top players out of their own hard-earned seeds.
Swan, however, is firmly in support of the move: 'Personally, I'm for a protected ranking for women who are pregnant,' she says, 'using Serena as an example, before she fell pregnant and decided to take time out, she was number one in the world and had just won the Australian open. As a result of deciding to have children she then lost her ranking, which wasn't a reflection of her performances it was simply because she wanted to have a baby which is a completely natural thing for a woman to do.'
'I think it's only fair that there is some kind of protection for them much like there is in the business world for women that take maternity leave,' she continued, 'having a baby should be something that tennis players are excited about if that's what they want to do and shouldn't have to be worried about the affect it might have on their career when they return to the court.'
Whether protected seeding becomes a reality for new mothers across tournaments will be determined by the WTA's ruling, however with so many high-profile female sportswomen in the game, it would seem remiss for them to rule out of their favour. Unlike other sports, tennis seems to stand apart with the relative notoriety of its female players. But why?
According to Katie, it's because tennis has such a global profile. 'The WTA do a great job at magnifying the achievements of us as players and that's not something that a lot of sports do on a global scale,' she says, 'I play tournaments all over the world, so naturally when results are going your way it's probably easier to make a name for yourself.'
And making a name for herself she has, as a Nike-sponsored athlete she's fast-becoming the face of a new generation of professional tennis players. Whether or not she proves her tennis domination at Wimbledon rests on her performance as a wildcard.
'Hopefully in years to come I won't need a wildcard, hopefully my ranking will be high enough to get in to the tournament of my own, but I'm really grateful for the opportunity this year, and I feel like I'm ready for it, and will go out there and give it my everything.'