September 10, 2019
Claire Fahey, A British World Champion
By Katrina Allen.
Have you never heard of Claire Fahey? Well, that’s probably because she’s at the top of the somewhat obscure game of Real Tennis, the predecessor of the sport that we see today at Wimbledon.
Real tennis was invented in around the 12th century by French monks and the rules are fiendishly complicated.
It’s a pretty niche sport. There are just 43 active courts worldwide; in France, the UK, Australia and the USA. Claire has wiped the board in the women’s events, winning 31 Open titles as well as being world champion since 2011.
I meet Claire at a rather fancy sports complex called Prested Hall, near Colchester, where she and her husband Rob are based. Rob Fahey is the men’s world champion. One might call them a power couple.
Tall, broad shouldered and with a gleaming smile, 27 yr old Claire greets me, dressed in white sports gear. Like Wimbledon, the dress code is conventional.
As with all real tennis professionals, she and Rob are attached to one of the courts where they string rackets, sew the hand-made balls and give lessons. They need to do so because there isn’t enough prize money on the tour to make a decent living.
I ask her what she earned in prize money for winning the British Open and I’m shocked to learn that she won £800 while the men’s winner received £5,000. In the World Championships there’s about £50,000 disparity in the prize fund.
When Claire wins the women’s tournaments, she barely loses a game in the process. I ask her if it’s a bit dull thrashing all her opponents and she replies diplomatically “The Opens are not so exciting but the World Champs are different. It’s pretty special to hold that title.”
Claire clearly wasn’t being sufficiently stretched which meant there wasn’t a great deal of incentive to improve, so she did something unheard of in the game. She asked to play in the men’s events.
Well, I say the men’s events, but the Open event in this country, for example, is simply called the British Open, so technically it’s open to all. When the tournament was first held, there were so few women players, that specifying the sex was clearly deemed unnecessary, so she decided to try and exploit the loophole.
“I first approached our sponsor, Robin Geffen at Neptune Investments, to ask if he’d support my request and he was fully in favour.
“I put my entry form in a week before the closing date so the association wasn’t given much time to think!” she says with a broad grin. “Anyway, there was no way they were going to say no to Robin, although I do remember one of the decision-makers asking me ‘Would you cry if you were hit by a ball?’ which I found incredibly insulting, especially since I’d have thrashed him on court.”
Some of the male pros weren’t too happy since she is seen as “double-dipping” in that she wins prize money for playing in both the women’s and the open events. “But then I could start arguing for equal prize money” she says.
“There’s no way I could afford to travel round the world on the women’s prize money. For winning the French Open, I was getting less than the men’s first round loser. And I do have the same outgoings and train just as hard as the men.”
The hand-made balls are heavy, rather like a cricket ball but covered in felt. The rackets are made of wood and their shape asymmetrical.
I ask her what it’s like to play against the men who wallop those heavy balls at her. “I’m fine with that although I do need to feel fresh to cope. When I played in Melbourne, I was jet-lagged, exhausted from lack of sleep and the kids were ill. I got the full force of the ball on my arm simply because I was too tired get out of the way. I won’t put myself in that situation again.”
Claire is clearly a sporting all-rounder; she was picked for the Olympic training squad in the canoeing event but chose to turn it down. “We would have been based in Nottingham and we didn’t want that.” I look incredulous. “Don’t you regret that?” “No, not really. I also realised that canoeing wasn’t a passion for me; and anyway, I don’t particularly like getting wet.” She gives me that broad grin again.
Her level has slipped a little since having the kids. “Sophie is three and Freddie eight months, and they take up a lot of time. I’d like to get back up to my previous level but apart from the physical recovery after pregnancies, I want to enjoy my time with them. It’s made me realise that the game is not the be-all and end-all.”
Despite this, Claire is still cleaning up in the women’s game. She even won the British Open while pregnant. At this year’s event, she and the family had the norovirus and yet she still sailed through.
I suggest to her that one needs a fair amount of arrogance to be at the top of a sport.
“I suppose you do, though I might call it confidence, but you do try and keep it to yourself, especially in our game as it’s so small. You do have to rein it in a bit. But the way I walk onto court now since being world champion has definitely changed. My mindset has changed too, even if you aren’t really aware of how it comes across.
“And yes, there are rivalries but no-one’s getting into fights on court.
“We don’t get much prize money and it often costs me more than I earn with paying for flights. I only receive rackets and clothing sponsorship, but I do it more for love than money.
“But it’s a good lifestyle and a great way to make a living if you’re into sport. There’s a huge friendship base.”
I’m starting to realise that turning down that place in the Olympic squad wasn’t such a bad decision after all.