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Interview - Ann Jones: Ann settles out of court.

Ann Jones opens the front door of her Edgbaston home and gives me a blank look.

'Oh, I'd forgotten you were coming,' she says in the brusque tone that has become her trademark.

Perhaps it's not convenient then? I venture, slightly unnerved by the combination of her gruff manner and the fact our meeting has slipped her mind.

'No, no, come in,' she urges and I follow her into her neat, spacious lounge.

Once we start chatting, Ann's terseness softens. Not that you'd want to get on the wrong side of her, I decide, but her seeming impatience is tempered by an amiable, if matter-of-fact, mien.

She can be humorous too: the other day, she tells me, she opened her front door to find Jasper Carrott standing there. The comic was looking for his accountant who lives next door.

'I said, 'Jasper Carrott', and he said 'Ann Jones',' the 1969 Wimbledon ladies' singles champion recalls with a chuckle.

Ann is wearing what I imagine she always wears around the house - tracksuit bottoms and top.

There is no trace of make-up, but she sports a healthy-looking tan. At 61, her figure is trim and lithe and her prettily wavy hair is still more blonde than grey.

But Ann is slowing down, it soon becomes clear. She no longer plays her beloved game and earlier this year retired from the Lawn Tennis Association (LTA). 'My time there just came to a natural conclusion,' she explains.

Recently her back 'went' while she was gardening and she couldn't get up from her kneeling position.

Nevertheless, there's a vigorousness about Ann that would put many women half her age to shame, and in terms of looks she could easily lob a decade off her age.

She may have pruned her work commitments, but she'll be in the BBC commentary box when Wimbledon opens on Monday - as she has been for many years now.

She still referees too, and has just completed stints at Edgbaston and Eastbourne.

So what else is Ann up to these days?

'Since I retired from the LTA in February - although I'm still on the international and professional board - I've been doing the house up,' she replies.

'And they're trying to get me involved locally - the Warwickshire Lawn Tennis Association. So far I've resisted but no doubt it'll happen in the end.'

Ann is, understandably, reluctant to sever all ties with the world of tennis.

'It's been my life,' she says simply. 'Most of my friends are involved in it. If you quit completely you cut out a huge section of your life and I don't believe in doing that.'

So why doesn't she play any longer?

'I was ill about six years ago and I never went back to it. Your sight goes a bit and you think 'is it worth it'?

'My daughter acquired a dog and I find I'd rather do that now - take it for walks.

'I hanker after tennis occasionally when I see a beautifully manicured court. So my mind might be half-interested but my body isn't.'

Born in Kings Heath, Ann grew up in a household dominated by table tennis rather than the sport that was to turn her into a household name.

'My parents were both table tennis players,' she recalls. 'My mother represented England and my father got to the semis in the world championships. He was also the captain of England for 20 years.

'So I was brought up to be a table tennis player. But it's all about late nights, electric lights and smoky atmospheres and my parents pushed me on to the tennis court in the summer to do something healthy.'

Nevertheless, table tennis brought Ann a considerable measure of early fame and success. She was capped for England no fewer than 66 times, won the world championships at Stockholm in 1957 at the age of 19 and has ten European national singles championships to her name.

'As I got better at tennis, I preferred the life to that of table tennis. To a certain extent it's about success: as you start to win you enjoy winning. Then you get trapped and don't know any other way of life really.

'Of course, when you lose you scan the adverts in the paper, thinking 'there must be a better job than this', but by and large you're trapped.'

That makes it sound as if Ann made a career out of tennis reluctantly, but there's no question she loved it.

She was 19 when she decided to concentrate her efforts on tennis rather than table tennis. 'I don't remember terribly clearly why; it didn't happen overnight.

'But I was invited to go to the Caribbean to play tennis during the winter - at the time tennis was very much a summer sport because there were no indoor courts - so off I trotted. And I never really looked back.

'I had a lot of fun out of table tennis, but tennis meant following the sun and seeing the world. And it was more leisurely than table tennis and a bit classier; it afforded a better way of life.

'You can't always analyse these things, but I believe you come to a fork and have to choose whether to go left or right. And once you've decided you can't go back if you want to get to the top.'

Ann chose to make a career out of tennis even though the earnings potential was paltry compared with the sums players command today.

'You didn't earn any money, but you lived free. I wanted to become as good as I could be, and I wanted to see the world. I really enjoyed the travel.'

Not only did tennis not pay well in Ann's day, players didn't get the kind of help and support that's available now.

'You didn't have dieticians telling you what to eat or personal trainers; that's why it took so much longer to get to the top. Nowadays players are force-fed all this stuff about diet and so on. They get better quicker because there are many more aids.

'I didn't have a coach; I learned most of my game watching the top players. If you learn it yourself you know it. Today, kids don't learn it themselves, they are taught it.'

Ann was 30 when she held aloft the famous silver plate on the Wimbledon Centre Court's hallowed turf.

In a memorable final, she ended Billie-Jean King's three-year Wimbledon reign by fighting back from a set down to win 3-6, 6-3, 6-2.

'I still remember '69,' concedes Ann, 'but only at this time of year, because people remind you and when you're down there the memories come back. But I don't think about it at other times because life moves on.

'I am very proud of it, don't get me wrong. Once you've won it, as people said at the time, no one can take it away. It's there; it's up on the board. When you go down to Wimbledon, if you choose to look, you can see your name on the honours board, and it is nice. It's the culmination of one's worktime activity.

'But life has to move on. You have to find other things - or other things find you.'

In Ann's case, it was motherhood.

'I'd spent 13 years getting to the top in tennis and I wanted a family. Winning Wimbledon was the pinnacle of my career. If I'd been younger maybe I would have carried on, but as it was I played for only another year and didn't defend my title.

'I was 31 and decided if I wanted a family I'd better get on with it.'

Ann had caused something of a stir several years earlier by marrying Philip 'Pip' Jones, a successful businessman who had been on the council of the Warwickshire Lawn Tennis Association since 1952 and was president between 1961 and 1963. Thirty one years her senior, Pip was five years older than Ann's father.

Ann was aware the big age gap raised eyebrows, but says: 'If it's something you want to do you make a success of it. What you do is really up to you. And it seemed to work out fine.

'Older men are self-assured and have different qualities. But I suppose in this day and age maybe you wouldn't get married; you'd go around together for a while and let the relationship take its course.'

Pip was not only fiercely protective of his wife, he gave her enormous support and encouragement in her tennis career.

'He gave me a lot of emotional support; tennis is a lonely sport and it's nice to have someone to have dinner with and someone to travel with - someone who's on your side.'

The couple had three children - Pippa, Michael and Christopher - which gave Ann 'a completely different focus'.

Pippa still lives at home for much of the time, despite the fact she has a flat with her boyfriend.

'She teaches locally so she spends quite a bit of time here,' says her mother. 'My one son lives down the road with his girlfriend and my younger son is at Leeds University.

'It's nice to have them around. I like a bit of peace, but I also like them coming in and out.'

Pip died in July 1993 at the age of 85, having fought Parkinson's Disease for many years.

Only a few hours after his death at Birmingham's Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Ann was in the commentary box at Wimbledon.

'He wanted me to go to Wimbledon for work,' she said at the time.

She's been going back to the scene of her greatest sporting triumph every summer since.

'It's still the same,' Ann says, a smile creasing her features. 'I think Wimbledon can hold its own. It has an aura about it that's different. All Grand Slams are different in their way, but Wimbledon has that sense of history.

'It's been there as the major tennis championships the whole way through and hard work has gone into maintaining that. It's on the same site, it has ivy-covered walls, and it's difficult to win. It's got a touch of class as well that, say, the US Open doesn't have.

'All the Grand Slams are good in their own way, but Wimbledon is still upheld by the players as the one to win, and we have to carry that on.'

But things have changed since Ann received her greatest tennis accolade from Princess Anne.

The monetary rewards have rocketed, for one thing. Ann picked up a cheque for just pounds 1,500 in 1969; this year's ladies' singles champion will pocket pounds 430,000.

'Tennis would have afforded me much more money if I'd played a bit later,' she says.

Why does she think the money side of sport has snowballed in recent years?

'Lots of things have had a bearing, such as sponsorship and the adulation of sports people.

'The sport itself has changed too, due to advancing equipment such as lighter rackets. Some people don't like the change and some people do.

'Young people tend to like it, but not older people: they prefer to appreciate the game, whereas today it tends to be a bit crash, bang, wallop. It's all about power.'

Furthermore, the tenor of the game has altered.

'I was always taught 'play the game, win or lose', whereas now the accent is very much on winning. There's a change in culture as well.

'Sport, on the whole, reflects society, it doesn't lead it. In life in general the accent is more on money.'

But although the financial rewards are greater, Ann thinks the pressures are weightier too.

'It's difficult now for players, particularly the great players. I think they do find it more difficult than we did. They make so much money there's no reason to get out of bed.'

Sadly, no Brits rank among today's great women players. Why is there a dearth of home-grown tennis stars?

'I could say the British system is to blame, but it's not totally that.

'It's very hard work getting to the top of the sporting tree now. Life in general is easier and softer and players are having to start younger and younger. Because so few tennis players can get to the top, I think parents are reluctant to push their children.

'But it also seems to me there's not as much discipline as there was in my day. A sport is very much a discipline and we'd had a chance to develop self-discipline because we were older. But now we're expecting 14-year-olds to perform on the world stage.'

It may be some time before another British woman wins the title Ann claimed so spectacularly 31 years ago, but when she does Wimbledon will still be the tennis tournament to win.

'Wimbledon is like life,' says Ann. 'It lives in the present, but has an eye to the past and an eye to the future.'
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Author:Dodd, Ros
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Jun 24, 2000
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