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Love of tennis has Tom Hands striving for success on ITF circuit

Tennis player Tom Hands practising at Hills Road Tennis Centre . Picture: Keith Heppell. (57003820)
Tennis player Tom Hands practising at Hills Road Tennis Centre . Picture: Keith Heppell. (57003820)

A long pause comes from Tom Hands after being asked what tennis means to him now.

“I’m going to think about it before diving in,” he explains, with a further period of silence following.

Hands is determined not to be cliched.

“I’ve always loved tennis so what it means to me is being able to forget everything else that is going on in my life,” he says.

“Tennis was always a break from other stresses in life.”

The relevance of what the sport means to Hands now relates to an earlier part of our conversation. As the 25-year-old explained how and why he first picked up a racket – with his mum, a tennis coach, at a club in Fulbourn – and what the appeal had been, it was just a passing comment that shone a light on his relationship with the game.

“After the summer when I fractured my skull, and wasn’t able to not just play tennis but exercise for six weeks, I missed it a lot and it almost made me realise how much I missed it,” he had said.

The accident in question happened when he was 16, just before starting his A-levels, as he fell off his bike on the way home from the city, hitting his face and, in gruesome detail, describes “brain fluid leaking down my nose”.

“I had to stay away from exercise because once the fracture had closed up, they didn’t want my blood pressure to get too high and then for my brain fluid to start leaking again, essentially,” he adds.

Not being able to do any sport had been a shock to the system for an energetic teenager.

“Going from doing all that to not even jogging round and playing sports with my friends just for fun, it was a big change and made me realise how active and sporty a person I am, and how much I missed tennis.”

The candour in which Hands talks of the incident and the subsequent return to playing would appear to reflect an easy, light-hearted personality but a determined one.

He has been playing tennis full-time since graduating with a degree in environmental science in the US, and stresses the use of the term full-time.

“I’m hesitant to use the word professional because it has a lot of assumptions to it,” he remarks.

“Professional being my only form of income? Yes. But does it mean it’s a lot of income? Absolutely not.”

Tennis player Tom Hands practising at Hills Road Tennis Centre . Picture: Keith Heppell. (57003837)
Tennis player Tom Hands practising at Hills Road Tennis Centre . Picture: Keith Heppell. (57003837)

Hands, who is coached by Hamid Hejazi and trains out of Hills Road Sports & Tennis Centre, had been inspired to head State-side to study by fellow Cambridgeshire players Robin Goodman and Sam Fleck, who trod a similar path a few years earlier.

“After I finished university, because I was still playing good tennis, I could see what happened if I played full time,” he says. “That was the plan from about the age of 16 after I got back into playing after the fractured skull.”

It was a bold move. There is no disguising the fact that tennis is such a difficult sport to make a career out of, something which Hands does not dispute.

“There is always that, but you don’t want to look back in 10 or 20 years and think what if, so I had to give it a go,” he says.

Family support has helped Hands to see what he could achieve, but that does not make it any easier.

From the outside looking in, it is difficult to appreciate just how hard it is to move up the rankings, let alone win tournaments, and you cannot escape the feeling that a lesser willed person would give up the ghost, regardless of the level of talent they possess.

An example given by Hands is a recent spell in Nottingham, where he played four International Tennis Federation competitions.

An ITF ranking of 308 – he does not currently have a singles ranking on the ATP Tour – meant going through qualifying rather than straight into the main draw, and the requirement of winning two matches to progress.

Each of the four weeks, Hands beat a player around the 1,000 mark in the ATP rankings, but then faced someone around 700 to 800. One tournament, he did manage to beat someone around 700 in the standings, only to be knocked out by Charlie Broom in the first round, who is world No 377.

“I lost that match in three sets,” he says. “If I had won that match, I would have got one point towards my world ranking.”

It is eye-opening to think such a feat brings so little reward in real terms.

What follows gives greater insight into the path to the top, and why it is so difficult for players to make an impact.

“The level gap isn’t that high, but the amount of matches – particularly when you’re starting out – you have to win even just to get on the leaderboard with these other guys is a lot,” says Hands.

“That’s why a lot of players opt to travel to countries where other people don’t want to travel because the draws are weaker and you won’t have such tough matches.

“It’s a way you can essentially chase the ranking points and travel a lot to boost your ranking, to a certain extent.”

Tennis player Tom Hands practising at Hills Road Tennis Centre . Picture: Keith Heppell. (57003830)
Tennis player Tom Hands practising at Hills Road Tennis Centre . Picture: Keith Heppell. (57003830)

As an outsider to how things work, it all sounds very demoralising.

“Yes, 100 per cent,” replies Hands to the suggestion

Being in the UK with training partners, coaches and friends around makes it easier to deal with, but it is when on the road overseas that things get harder.

Investing that time, effort and expense to then have an off day and lose in the first round must be hard to cope with, even for someone as seemingly upbeat and optimistic as Hands.

“You feel so good before you go away and then you don’t perform well, so it gives you the feeling of ‘why am I doing this?’,” he admits.

But where does the pick-me-up come from?

It must take a lot of mental strength and resilience to recover from the setbacks to go again, but it just goes back to love for the sport.

“I always think, if I wasn’t playing tennis, what else would I be doing right now,” he explains.

“I always think that whatever else I was doing, I wouldn’t be enjoying it as much. There are bad moments in tennis, but to be able to play tennis and that be what you do is such a privilege.

“It’s trying to have a wider perspective on things. It’s so easy to get caught up in whatever you do thinking the thing you’re doing at this time is the be all and end all of your existence, it really isn’t.”

There have definitely been highs though, and one of those came last summer in Illinois.

Playing alongside fellow Brit Finn Bass, they won an ITF doubles title. It is why you can see how Hands’ positive character helps put a hopeful appraisal on even the down days.

Tennis player Tom Hands practising at Hills Road Tennis Centre . Picture: Keith Heppell. (57003849)
Tennis player Tom Hands practising at Hills Road Tennis Centre . Picture: Keith Heppell. (57003849)

“It’s remembering it is all just a process and getting on with it, without worrying too much about what this means or what someone else thinks about this result,” he says.

“When I have those moments, I eventually come round to thinking about that, ‘this wasn’t the end of the world, I’ve got a great life and things are going to happen to me, it’s not the end of my way’. You’ve just got to get on and work towards the next one.”

But as we go back to what tennis means to him now, the relationship will be changing slightly come the autumn, when he goes to study a masters in Nottingham.

“Now it is the only thing in my life, sometimes I’ve felt like it’s almost the opposite effect – I’ve needed other things to have a break from tennis,” he adds.

“I don’t want to always be tennis, tennis, tennis, Tom the tennis guy.

“That’s why I think I’m going back to university because although I definitely want to keep my tennis going, without a doubt, I need that project to think about while I’m not playing tennis.”

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