What started as an interim role has led to a lifetime devotion to tennis for Sue Rich. For 40 years and counting, Rich has been passing on to youngsters the enthusiasm and joy for the sport that all began on a Norfolk farm.
It was never quite meant to be that way though, as the Cambridge Lawn Tennis Club head coach initially only began instructing in-between finishing a sports science degree and contemplating studying for a PhD.
“It was really an interim doing a bit of that and then see what I wanted to do. I enjoyed it a lot so I carried on doing it,” explained Rich.
“I got involved with doing some county coaching for Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire and happened to coach the Cass children.
“Geoffrey Cass, who was chief executive of Cambridge University Press, said there was the opportunity to coach at Cambridge University, was I interested? If not, then he’d advertise it.
“I started with that and did quite a lot of coaching for the university and then the county, so I worked for the LTA often as I progressed. It sort of snowballed and I got into it.”
It took off from there, and has never really stopped, with Rich being named the LTA coach of the year in 2007 and then earning the Aegon British Tennis Award for Outstanding Achievement last year; although little would you know it as she is extremely modest.
Given the heights Rich has reached in the sport, you would hardly realise as she almost seems reluctant to talk of her accomplishments.
She has worked at all ages, from mini tennis through to county, national and international standards, including as national coach for the 12 and under girls.
“It was at the time that Andy Murray was under-12s, I coached the girls and another colleague was doing the boys so we would travel with them all around Europe,” said Rich.
“It was super and just gave you some idea of what the standards were like. I worked at county and at that time quite a few of the children in Cambs did well at national level.”
One of those youngsters was Teresa Catlin, who Rich coached to play at Wimbledon and the other three Grand Slams, represent Great Britain in the Maureen Connolly Trophy and European Cup, become GB No 1 and play on the WTA professional tour from 1985 to 1990.
There were other notable success stories during that era, with youngsters from Cambridgeshire competing in and winning national finals.
“I particularly enjoy working with young children and just helping them to fulfil their potential,” said Rich. “I’m a great believer that if you work kids at a young age most of them can be pretty reasonable club players, some are going to be pretty good county players, one or two will play nationally and you hope one or two will play internationally.
“You are looking at how athletic they are, what sort of competitive skills they’ve got and then hand/eye co-ordination so you can spot a kid who is quite good.
“Then a lot of it depends on how committed the parents are. At that age, if they’re seven, eight, nine, 10, it’s really a case of ‘are the parents prepared to drive them around and take them to training?’
“It’s quite small [the conversion rate] because there are so many opportunities in other sports.”
Rich, 61, had those other sporting interests herself as a youngster.
She played hockey for Suffolk and Cambridgeshire, squash for Cambridgeshire and tennis for Norfolk, which she still does to this day.
It was in her home county where she first picked up a tennis racket, and it was in the simplest manner possible.
“We used to just hit against the wall at home,” said Rich. “Parents just put a bit of cement on a wall, and we lived on a farm so you could knock a ball against there.
“My sister, who is a bit younger, got involved with Norfolk county training and then, as parents do, mum says ‘well she’s got an older sister, can she come along too?’.
“I went along at about 12, and joined in a little bit. We went to boarding school and they had a wall there so you would get up in the morning before breakfast and go and hit the ball against the wall.
“We’ve got a wall here [at Cambridge LTC] and you just hit hundreds and hundreds of balls.
“Today, most of the coaching is very structured so unless there is a class on, people don’t often just get on a court and play. To have the wall there and the kids to actually get out and do that is great.”
The approach to tennis has changed a lot during Rich’s involvement in the sport, such as the structured lessons she refers to, rather than players just heading to their local club to play.
The development of technology has also had a big impact.
“As you’re developing as a coach, there are certain other people who have inspired you when you were younger and you probably copied their role model a bit,” she said. “I’m always one for every day you can learn something new. So if somebody has got a good idea, you can think, I like that or you adapt it in some way.
“I think it’s a bit like playing. If you’re open minded and always prepared to try something new you’re going to keep improving.
“Coaching has changed in terms of the equipment you’ve got. Whereas, traditionally, it was very much everything was fairly linear and now everything is fairly angular so it’s much more use of the whole body rather than just stepping down the court.
“Grips have changed, kids today hit the ball 10 times harder – a lot of that is technology.”
You can bet though, that just like the previous 40 years, as the game changes, Rich will adapt with the times to guide the next generation of tennis players.
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