Those of us who have spent the lockdown eating biscuits and watching Netflix can only admire British Fed Cup star Katie Boulter. Denied her summer’s goal of playing at Wimbledon, Boulter changed tack completely, and used her extra time to train as a volunteer with Age UK.
Her time on the charity’s training programme was due to finish on Wednesday. Once qualified, she expects to be handed the names of three isolated pensioners – probably tennis lovers – whom she will then contact for a regular chat.
Speaking to reporters this week, Boulter said that her motivation was twofold. Firstly, she wanted to engage with “bigger problems” beyond the 200 square metres of a tennis court. But then, on a more personal level, she was also chafing at her enforced separation from her 84-year-old grandfather, Brian Gartshore – an inventor and engineer who has been a huge emotional support throughout her career.
“It's been pretty hard for me [that] I can't go and see them,” said Boulter of Gartshore – who helped to invent the alarm-triggering retail tags used in clothing stores – and his wife Jill.
“I call Grandpa as much as I can but sometimes he doesn't pick up. I am not sure he has grasped the whole green is go, red is not thing. The days he goes on the green, we have great conversations.”
Boulter has spent the past three months in London with her flat-mates: fellow racket-wielder Laura Robson and Robson’s model boyfriend, James Yates. Her grandparents are 100 miles away in Leicestershire.
“I've signed up to do an Age UK charity thing in which I get to have a relationship with elderly people,” she explained. “I have a close relationship with my grandpa so it makes me feel better if I can help them during this difficult time.”
Tennis runs in Boulter’s family. Her mother, Sue, was a junior British international who twice captained Leicestershire at the County Cup. On Saturday, mother and daughter spent 90 minutes hitting together at the All England Club, where Sue was recently accepted as a member.
Otherwise, Boulter has been training on the clay courts at the National Tennis Centre in Roehampton, where her hitting partners have included her coach, Jeremy Bates, and British No 3, Harriet Dart.
Having missed the majority of the 2019 season with a spinal stress fracture – which she picked up while helping Great Britain topple Kazakhstan in the Fed Cup 14 months ago – Boulter has had to swallow her frustration at the suspension of professional tennis.
Only a few days before the lights were switched off on March 8, she had beaten world No60 Anna Blinkova to claim her first top-100 scalp since she suffered her back injury.
“I was fully fit and raring to go,” she explained this week. “It was unfortunate timing for me. But things are going to get thrown at you and just have to use them in the best possible way that you can.
“With my clay-court training, I felt like this was the time to test out my body and my back,” added Boulter, whose recent fitness problems have left her languishing at No374 in the world. “The thing about a clay court is that the ball keeps coming back. You have to stay out there longer and get fitter and stronger, which is definitely going to help me when I go back on a hard court.”
At 23, Boulter’s long history of ailments and injuries – which also includes a battle with chronic fatigue syndrome during her late teenage years – leaves her feeling like a relative newcomer to the WTA tour.
But the quality of the players she beat during her breakthrough 2018 season (Sam Stosur, Maria Sakkari and Alison Riske, among others) suggests that she could climb considerably higher than her peak of No82.
In the meantime, she wants to keep broadening her mind and her range of interests. Another priority is to use her profile to promote social causes, such as the Black Lives Matter movement.
In this week’s interview, Boulter mentioned her friendship with Frances Tiafoe – the American player who released a powerful video at the weekend featuring other black tennis icons such as Serena Williams and Coco Gauff.
“I’ve known him since juniors,” she said, “and he is one of the nicest guys out there. The thing that Frances did – I just thought that was incredible. And for all of those people to come together and for tennis to unite is very important.”
“It [the situation in America] reminds you that there are so many bigger problems in the world than tennis,” Boulter added. “To see people putting that as their No1 priority right now is pretty special. I just hope that we can keep doing this and make the world a better place to live in.”
Katie Boulter is a member of the LTA’s Pro Scholarship Programme – the highest level of support offered to developing elite players by the national governing body.