TENNIS: Alex Ward’s long and winding road to Wimbledon

WIMBLEDON DATE - Northampton tennis player Alex Ward

WIMBLEDON DATE - Northampton tennis player Alex Ward

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The long, winding and often tortuous road which has led Northampton’s Alex Ward into the first round of the men’s singles at Wimbledon next Monday or Tuesday is an epic lesson in perseverance of Robert The Bruce style proportion.

It is 50 years since a county player stepped on court there for a date with history, an afternoon in 1966 when Billy Knight, still resident locally in East Haddon, lost 4-6, 7-5, 6-4, 6-2 against Spaniard Jose Luis Arrilla.

MIXING WITH THE BEST - Alex Ward (left) spent much of last week practising with Andy Murray at Queens

MIXING WITH THE BEST - Alex Ward (left) spent much of last week practising with Andy Murray at Queens

That signalled the end of a proud senior Wimbledon and world career begun in 1952 (although he had won Junior Wimbledon) and highlighted for Knight by winning the mixed doubles of the French Open with Yola Ramirez in 1959 (they beat Rod Laver and Renee Schuurman in the final), a year after he went to the quarter-finals of the men’s singles at Roland Garros. His best effort at Wimbledon saw him reach the last 16.

For Ward, the message has been try, try and try again, resonating especially loudly when you reflect on the career of the 26 year-old Northampton School For Boys pupil whose preparations for a career highlight have now been realised by a Wimbledon wild card.

For eight years or more since turning professional Ward has been striving for this moment, having agonisingly missed out in Wimbledon qualifying for the last six.

Ward will find out at the end of the week who will oppose him on his date with destiny. Dreams of meeting Novak Djokevic, Roger Federer or Andy Murray are not so far-fetched in the 132 draw when you consider the surreal nature of the last week although he quipped: “If I get to play Djokevic I will be first match on and first one off!

Ward said: “Everything has happened at once. As well as the singles wild card at Wimbledon I have one for the doubles when I’ll be partnering another British player Brydan Kline. I also needed a wild card for the ATP Tour at Nottingham this week.

“Add to that I probably hit with Andy Murray six days in a row and of course it all coincided with him teaming up again with Ivan Lendl as his coach. There were some interesting conversations going on there.

“Miles Raonic is the world number nine and asked me for a hit but I even had to turn him down as I was hitting with Andy Murray!

“The media picked up on the fact I was there every day hitting with Andy Murray plus the fact and I had my first wild card so was interviewed by BBC 5 Live and Eurosport. It was probably a good thing I had the Nottingham tournament this week to focus on, rather than just dwell on what is coming up at Wimbledon.”

All this is a far cry from all of those Junior County Closed finals day afternoons in Northampton at the King’s Park Tennis Centre around 2000, although no doubt his old junior county sidekick Tom Foster still reminds him of the day he defeated Ward 6-0, 6-0. The subject cropped up when Ward was best man at Foster’s wedding in Stoke-on-Trent in 2014.

Personally, I am fortunate to have two tickets for Court Two on the opening day next Monday and somewhere at the back of my mind believe a miracle will take place and I will see Ward stride onto court with his bag slung nonchalantly over his shoulder as though he didn’t have a care in the world. This is something I have longed for in over 30 years of reporting Northants tennis!

Bizarrely, I can even lay claim to once picking up Ward early on a Friday evening along with my doubles partner for the night, the aforementioned Foster. We drove to Roade where Barcelona-based Ward watched us toil in a Men’s Division Four match for the now defunct Old Northamptonians. Afterwards, we shared a few glasses of lemonade in the adjoining Royal British Legion club. Imagine the surprise of the Roade guys when they learned the unassuming spectator was a performer of international standing, too polite to criticise my laborious efforts, and who apparently couldn’t make our team!

There are moments when it becomes almost impossible to filter into words what we actually feel and Ward confirmed the belief this week when he said: “It is tough to express in a tweet how happy I am to get a main draw wild card into Wimbledon for singles and doubles.”

Pictures of Ward in earnest conversation and training with Andy Murray and his ‘back in the fold’ coach Ivan Lendl add to the surreal effect and serve as a reminder that however complicated the path to realising your own personal dream, there is always a way, just ask Robert The Bruce.

However, there is always harsh reality around the corner and Ward’s build-up to Wimbledon was cut short in the singles at Nottingham on Monday when he lost 6-7, 7-6, 2-6 to Canadian Frank Dancevic.