Olivia Rook is an East Glos Junior Player, with an U12 National Singles title and two U18 National Doubles titles already under her belt and success at ITF (International Tennis Federation) Junior level, reaching the doubles semi-final at an ITF event in Belgium in 2018. At the time of writing she regularly competes in the Women’s British Tour and ITF junior events, hoping to improve both her UK ranking and ITF Junior World Ranking. We invited Olivia and her mum, Berni for a warm chat over coffee.
I start with the age-old question – “How did you start playing?”
Olivia looks at her mum, with a tiny smile playing on her face. “My dad and my brother always played when I was younger. I thought it was quite fun, so I joined in. I did not start competing seriously until the U12 age group, but I always wanted to play”. She tells me that her brother fuelled her competitive streak, but she leaves it at that. “We used to play ‘family fun’ doubles, but someone would always end up walking off court,” she laughs. “But they are very supportive, I have so many events and my family always drive me places, even if it’s inconvenient for them”.
Olivia Rook is shy at the onset of the interview, she is after all only fifteen, but there is a subtle wisdom and humour to her that makes me admire and warm to her in equal measure. She continues recounting her background, “My dad was really supportive about it, he’s a tennis coach so understands what’s involved. My first nationals doubles title with Hannah was my favourite. It was U18 and we were both 14. We had lost in the 2nd round of U16, but we went on to win the U18 event despite having faced match point in the final. I also remember going to Dublin for a tennis Europe event without an international ranking at that point and I beat the no1 seed 7-5 in the 3rd set – my opponent probably thought someone who was unranked would be very straightforward to beat”.
The opponent thought someone who was unranked would be very straightforward to beat.
Following her family’s encouragement toward her playing, she muses over other inspirations, “I find all the women playing the pro game very inspiring. It’s difficult to pick one – but, Sabalenka, she’s in the top 20 of the women’s game now, even though she wasn’t one of the best juniors.” With a role model only 5 or so years older than her, I ask her for the significance of this – does it make a difference? “Definitely,” she nods. “Teenagers are coming through juniors to the top of the adult game”.
As it is, being a teenager requires juggling a lot of responsibilities and expectations. Taking up professional sports adds an extra juggling ball to the mix. “There are little times you don’t take it for granted, you just do it.” There are benefits though. Being involved in professional sport brings discipline to her life, she tells me. “Other kids don’t do any sports, but still don’t finish their homework”.
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Olivia is far from oblivious about the realities of playing sport for a career and understands the importance of maintaining balance in her life,
“It’s quite dangerous for the future. You play all the time at such a young age, you don’t enjoy it. Your level is always going to increase as you grow older, but that also makes it easier for other people at their later age to catch up to the level you’ve built through your teenage years. You might have won everything when you were younger, but if they catch up and you lose even a single match, you could start getting fed up saying, ‘why am I not winning this now?’ You’ve burned all together. This is why I think you need education just as much or more. Because if you concentrate just on one, you can lose that balance if you go full-time too early. I don’t think that’s great. There are schools now that tend to this balance, so even if you want to play professionally, being home-schooled is not the only option now”.
This is why I think you need education just as much or more.
Such thoughts can easily daunt an individual, so I ask her if there is any added stress or pressure to perform – “If I played well on the day and lost, that’s fine because I couldn’t have done any more. But you always learn something or more from the defeats and it’s never about ‘I lost, I’m going to give up now’. I try to turn it into a positive. Always take your time – I know I have to cool off after the match. But stress? I’ve never really thought about that. Just enjoy it. If you play and don’t enjoy it, then what’s the point?
The interview branches into a more general conversation about sport. She tells me that she has mates who play sports like athletics, rowing and karate and I ask if she sees any differences between how their sports treats them versus hers. “I hear no complaints from my friends. But it’s more about Team sports versus Individual sport. In a team sport there are people you travel with and the company helps – having people who understand you and share the same goal. But in tennis for example, other than the doubles, you’re kind of out there on your own, so if you make a mistake you can’t blame anyone else”.
I wonder if Olivia sees herself as a potential role model. She reminds me, “You don’t have to do certain sports just for the sake of increasing participation of women – you have to really enjoy it. But also know, just because a man is doing it, doesn’t mean you can’t”.
But also know, just because a man is doing it, doesn’t mean you can’t.
However, she’s not unaware of the stark differences that exist between the way men’s and women’s sport is covered in the media,
“Male sport is still overpowering women’s sport, like football. We don’t hear a lot about women’s football. The money in tennis is more or less equal, tennis is quite lucky that way. But at the year end finals, the men’s tournament was on BBC, while the women’s was on BT or Eurosport, because there weren’t any ‘high profile players’. Don’t base the sport on just the famous player, but the game itself and how the player plays, not just the player’s name. I think, when they do that, it’s a shame.”
Believing that the focus should be on the game itself and the players’ abilities, Olivia applies this to how she approaches her professional career as well, “If you’re doing well enough, people are going to know on their own.”
You know about her now. I suspect in future many more will too.