In the first of a two-part interview, we catch up with Greg Howe following the success of his debut book detailing his rise up the ATP rankings at the age of 34.
The book, if you haven’t already read it, is a must-read. Detailing the highs and lows of professional tennis on the ITF circuit, Greg provides almost behind-the-scenes access about life on tour, explaining the strains and commitment players make every day. Since launching, Howe has been covered in the Telegraph, New York Times and interviewed by BBC Radio 5 Live, all detailing how he chased his dream of becoming a world-ranked tennis player.
Now, Howe has spoken to The Big Racket about his tennis career after the book and his hopes for the future.
Ending his book on a high, Howe details his experiences at an ATP 500 event in Dubai, remarkably sharing a gym with a certain Andy Murray. So what happened next?
“I wanted the book to have a definite time period, and a very clear ‘hero’s quest’ storyline” Greg recalls. “The Dubai ATP was a logical end as it was the biggest event I played in, and for me the tennis equivalent of finding the treasure at the end of the rainbow, so to speak. In hindsight, if I’d stopped playing pro tennis there and then, it may have been the perfect ending, but there was no way I was going to stop.”
With the aim to keep hold of his ATP ranking for as long as possible, Howe played one more ATP event in Doha in 2009, and reached the quarter-finals at a Futures event in Tehran in 2008. This run allowed him to maintain his professional status.
“By this time, I was approaching 38 years old. Yet it wasn’t so much my age, but rather that I was trying to combine working full-time as a teacher and then playing top-flight tennis in my spare time, that overstressed my body. I had a series of bad injuries and was out for almost 2 years. I tried to come back, and I got close to regaining my ATP ranking, but in that time off I’d lost my momentum. It wasn’t so much just a bit of power and confidence, but I could never reach the same level again.”
One of the running themes in the book is the responses to Howe’s tennis journey, at the time, from British tennis forum members. Howe names them the aficionados and they provided Howe with disbelief that people were actually talking about him.
Greg says that before he embarked on his tennis tour adventure, he had no idea that such forums existed: “When I first saw people commenting on my matches I wasn’t sure what to think. It probably didn’t help that many of the comments were quite sarcastic (“he must be on a round-the-world holiday”). But when my results started to get better, and people started rooting for me, then I did look forward to reading them and I found it mostly amusing.”
When Greg embarked on his tennis tour adventure, social media access was not what it is today. Earlier this year, we heard from Eden Silva and Olivia Nicholls on the real issue tennis faces in player abuse at the hands of spectators and online fans. For Howe, he chose to respond directly to some of his critics who commented on his performances without an understanding of the circumstances.
“A few months after the period of the book, I was trying to come back from an elbow injury and I had a poor result in the season-opening ATP event in Doha. When I saw a negative comment online about the scoreline, I got so irritated that I registered on their forum and fired off a pretty irate reply. It may have not been the smartest thing to do as a player – I can see the danger these days of high-profile sportspeople having instant access to social media.”
However, without these fans cheering on Howe and investing in his journey, things might have ended completed differently. “It all ended well though – I continued to post as a player from far-flung locations; ironically, I (for better or worse) never received negative comments again on that forum; and the person whom I replied to helped me so much in the marketing of the book that I thanked him in the acknowledgements!”
What next for Howe?
Having officially achieved his childhood dreams of becoming an ATP ranked tennis player, how has it changed Howe’s life? The reality is that no major changes have happened, but more subtle recognition for Greg.
“It hasn’t changed my day-to-day life in any tangible way – perhaps only when I’m playing in tennis tournaments or I’m at a tennis club then people knowing you once had ATP points gives you an automatic level of credibility and respect.
“But I will say that it’s amazing how often people ask what my world ranking was – I can see their amazement in their eyes that I even play tennis, yet alone was on the pro rankings. It’s a very nice feeling to be able to tell them a specific number – 1,222! This also makes me appreciate what this means, because in what other area of one’s life can you say this? Could I ever be the thousandths best English teacher in the world?”
Howe makes a point. Often we can become fixated on rating the success or failure of tennis players based on their season rankings or tournaments won. Should we really question someone’s professional tennis career if they haven’t won a Grand Slam? And are we ok to write off British tennis players who struggle to break into the top 300 of the world? As Greg says, how often can you say that you are in the top 1,000 people in your profession?
This year, Howe entered into two Futures events on the European clay. While he admits he didn’t play well, 2018 symbolised the 30th anniversary of his first ITF professional event.
“I always wanted to know when it would be my final pro tournament, so I could savior the moment and hold onto the feeling. On the same day of my final match in Italy, Simon Briggs of the Telegraph wrote an article titled “Farewell to the Don Quixote of British Tennis”. It was quite an emotional article about the demise of the amateur players with all the upcoming tour changes. In the second set, with the match running away from me against a player less than half my age, I distinctly remember looking up at the Dolomite mountains and thinking that players like myself don’t normally get farewell write-ups in major national newspapers, and that perhaps the universe was telling me something.
“Will I play more professional tennis in 2019? Let me finish this with a quote from one of my favourite players, Luke Jenson. Originally, in an early draft of my book, I ended it with this quote as it fits into my way of thinking, and it’s appropriate now. It goes something like this – “I never retired, because retiring is quitting, and I never quit anything in my life. The tour just passed me by.”
“In 2019, I’ll be 48 years old. I’m doing everything I can to catch up, but maybe the tour has passed me by.”
It’s a remarkable journey and a must-read for all tennis lovers. Keep an eye out on part two of our interview with Greg, where he discusses the impact the new ITF changes coming into force in 2019 will have on tennis. You can buy Chasing Points: A season on the pro season circuit on Amazon, Waterstones and many other bookstores.