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Annabel Croft on how dance helped her through tough times

Annabel Croft is currently on BBC Strictly <i>(Image: BBC/Ray Burmiston)</i>
Annabel Croft is currently on BBC Strictly (Image: BBC/Ray Burmiston)

As she hits our screen as a Strictly Come Dancing star, Kent-born tennis supremo Annabel Croft reveals her latest sporting passion – and the power of dance to lift her in the very toughest of times.

As a former tennis champion turned TV presenter and commentator, Annabel Croft is no stranger to performing in front of large crowds, but stepping onto Wimbledon’s Centre Court in July to interview the men and women’s finalists during the trophy presentations was nerve-wracking.

'It was one of the biggest things I have ever done in my life. It was such a huge occasion, almost ceremonial, so it felt like there was a huge amount of pressure,' admits Annabel, 57, who lives near Wimbledon but hails from Farnborough, Kent.

Her warmth, insight and professionalism earned Annabel a legion of fans with calls for her to become the BBC’s main anchor following Sue Barker’s departure.

'People probably thought that's the first time I've done these sorts of interviews, but I've been doing them for a long, long time. I guess all those years of experience probably helped me to find some calmness on the day, and be able to get the words out of my mouth.'

Great British Life: Annabel Croft at Wimbledon 2023 (c) BBC/OptomenAnnabel Croft at Wimbledon 2023 (c) BBC/Optomen

More recently, as we go to press, Annabel is still appearing on a very different stage, as one of the celebrity contestants on this year's Strictly Come Dancing.

A dance enthusiast, Annabel attended ballet classes as a young girl and has said in another life she would have been a ballerina. But her decision to take part in the competition was prompted by the death of her husband of 30 years, Mel Coleman.

He died in May, aged 60, just weeks after he was diagnosed with stage three cancer.

'My husband absolutely loved watching the show,' says Annabel, who has spoken of her heartbreak that he couldn’t see her take to the dancefloor.

The sequin-fuelled spectacular has provided some comfort, and a source of distraction from grief that left her crying every day following his passing.

'Strictly has been an amazing opportunity and I was so excited to take part. It is the whole process of learning to dance, and getting to meet wonderful new people. I could sit and watch those amazing dancers for hours,' says Annabel whose three children, Amber, Lily and Charlie, have been cheering her on from the sidelines.

It is no secret that Strictly training is unrelenting, but as a former British Number One tennis champion, Annabel’s mindset is that of an athlete and exercise continues to be an integral part of her daily life.

'Of course, I’m not as fit as I was, I’m in my 50s now, but I definitely feel fit. I love to do some kind of sport every day, whether it’s running, yoga, tennis, or padel,' she says.

Great British Life:  Annabe says Padel is a great way to have fun and keep fit. . Credit better.org.co.uk Annabe says Padel is a great way to have fun and keep fit. . Credit better.org.co.uk

The latter (pronounced ‘paddle’) is a relatively new phenomenon in the UK. Fast-paced and fun, it’s not as serious as tennis, or frenetic as squash.

'I just fell in love with it instantly. It is very inclusive as anyone can play whatever your age or skill. I don't think I've ever played it when I don't laugh and smile,' says Annabel, who is an ambassador for the sport but expounds the virtues of all exercise.

'It’s just so good for you mentally, as much as it is physically. It gives you a boost and makes you feel happier and more positive. It’s just nice to be able to switch off from the stresses of life and do something healthy that gets your brain engaged. I couldn’t be without it. It is why it’s heartbreaking to think so much of kids’ entertainment is screen-based now,' she notes.

As for her own formative years growing in Kent, she remembers it was, 'very free and happy.'

One of three siblings, Annabel attended West Heath School in Sevenoaks, then a fee-paying school for girls, and away from the classroom was left 'free to roam', as you could back then.

'We would go up into the fields at the back of my parents’ house with all the local kids, play in the trees and build dens. I have such happy memories,' says Annabel who continues to visit her home county when she can.

Great British Life: Strictly Come Dancing 2023 (c) BBC/Ray BurmistonStrictly Come Dancing 2023 (c) BBC/Ray Burmiston Great British Life: Annabel paired with Johannes Radebe, (c) BBC/Ray BurnistonAnnabel paired with Johannes Radebe, (c) BBC/Ray Burniston

'I have a friend who still lives there and my parents are in the same house I grew up in. I love walking in the countryside and the beautiful pubs and church in Chiddingstone.'

Kent, of course, also played its own pivotal part in her career.

Annabel was nine when she discovered tennis during a family holiday to Spain. On her return, she was determined to hone her newly found passion and started playing tennis at The Parklangley Club in Beckenham and Sundridge Park in Bromley. Aged 12, she won the nationals as a rank outsider and was invited by the Lawn Tennis Association to begin national training. Three years later, she took part in her first senior Wimbledon match.

Although she lost, the ensuing spotlight meant she was rarely out of the papers. It is why she welcomed a move to America. It meant she could focus on training without distraction or unnecessary outside stress, although it didn’t lessen the exhaustive and unceasing pressure of the tennis circuit, which was often a lonely place, especially for a teenager.

At 21, having represented Great Britain, won two junior Grand Slams, and ranked 24 in the world, Annabel announced her retirement.

To some, it seemed premature, but Annabel was adamant she put her wellbeing first. It was a decision ahead of its time.

Nowadays, we often hear of athletes choosing to step away from the limelight in order to prioritise their mental health, but that was not the case in 1988.

'When I look back, I think that was quite a brave decision, but I had travelled the world from 12 and done nothing else but hit tennis balls from the age of nine. By 21, I just knew the way of life on the tennis circuit was like a circus lifestyle and not what I wanted to do. I wanted to explore other things and I have never regretted the decision,' says Annabel, who understands the pressures on young stars such as Emma Raducanu, who was raised in Bromley on the Kent borders.

'A professional sports person's life can be a rocky road emotionally because your happiness depends on winning. Life doesn't have to be like that. You don't have to win everything to be happy.'

Great British Life: Annabel CroftAnnabel Croft

Following her retirement, Annabel moved into TV, presenting Treasure Hunt and Interceptor and using her expertise and first-hand experience of tennis, on and off the court, in radio and television commentary. A naturally shy person, she admits this has meant regularly pushing herself out of her comfort zone.

'There were several times where I was having complete freakouts about holding microphones and being expected to speak to large groups of people, so it's extraordinary that is now the main part of my job,' observes Annabel.

'I am sure if I watched early tapes of myself, I would cringe, but it is about being okay with failing, picking yourself up, learning from it and going on to the next thing. It is why I always say to my kids, longevity will give you credibility.'

Despite an incredibly tough year, Annabel has also enjoyed triumphant moments in her professional life and is looking towards 2024 with a sense of optimism and hope for the future. No doubt, it will bring about more exciting opportunities and with it, even greater recognition.

'I have been very dedicated to my sport for nearly 35 years, so while it does feel like there's a new chapter, a lifetime of work has gone into that.'

Annabel Croft is an ambassador for Padel. Visit game4padel.com and better.org.uk



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