LIFE & LIVING
Acle’s Olivia Nicholls is one of Britain’s leading tennis players in action at next month’s Wimbledon Championships. Sarah Hardy finds out more.
Olivia Nicholls is a hard woman to track down. As a professional tennis player, she travels the world, competing in numerous competitions with her doubles partner, Alicia Barnett. I finally catch up with her in Portugal as she takes part in the
Oeiras Open in Lisbon, and she was off to Germany the following week, or was it Morocco?
She tells me that in the opening four or five months of the year she has perhaps been in Britain for about two weeks, but she certainly isn’t fazed by her globe-trotting lifestyle. ‘It’s just what I do – and I have been doing it for about five years. I’m away more than I’m home so it is pretty full on, but I can’t complain. I get to see some great places and I do a little sightseeing when I get some time off.’
She adds: ‘You certainly learn to pack light, and pick up anything you need along the way!’
Olivia, now aged 28, has been playing tennis since she was four years old, benefitting, no doubt, from her mum, Ann, being a coach at her local tennis club in Acle. Her older brother, Henry, also played when he was younger and so provided a great practice partner.
‘I loved all sports,’ Olivia says, adding that she has represented Norfolk at tennis in all age groups from the so-called ‘mini-red’ category for little ones aged just five upwards. But she never really thought about becoming a professional tennis player, saying: ‘I wasn’t sure I was good enough.’
She studied Sports Science with Management at Loughborough University, where she also played tennis for the first team. ‘I improved a lot there – there were great facilities and good coaching, and it opened my eyes to what might be possible.’
She graduated in 2016, and turned professional in 2017. ‘So I’ve been doing it ever since apart from breaks because of the pandemic, and I had a pretty serious shoulder injury.’
She cites this injury as a main reason for her move into playing doubles, saying that doubles put less strain on it. ‘You only serve once every four games, rather than every other game.’
She hooked up with her current doubles partner, Alicia Barnett, aged 29 from the Bath area, about 18 months ago. ‘We had played together before, on the university circuit, and did really well. And we are good friends too, which really helps.’
Olivia says they have different strengths which bolsters their overall game. ‘She is good at the baseline and I’m good at the net so we complement each other.’
Olivia is hopeful that she and Alicia will qualify for the French Open at Roland Garros in Paris in May, although it all depends on what other players opt to do, how they themselves perform, and more. ‘We should make the cut,’ she says, adding: ‘I haven’t played it before so I would really love to.’
She is sure they will compete at Wimbledon as they are the country’s number one doubles team, saying: ‘It is a special competition – I grew up watching it on television, and now grass is my favourite surface to play on. And my family and friends can come and see me too, so it is great fun.’
Olivia, who went to Acle High School and Gorleston’s East Norfolk Sixth Form College, rates Roger Federer as her favourite tennis player, admiring his grace and poise both on and off the court. ‘He is very relaxed on the ball, very laid back and I like his game style,’ she says.
She also pays tribute to her long term coach, Tom Kisiel, who is based at Loughborough University. ‘He knows me well and I trust him,’ and she says that she isn’t intimidated or nervous about playing high pressure tennis matches in front of big crowds – however hostile they might be. ‘I thrive on those big occasions – it is part of being a sportsperson. I have been playing for a long time, and I have played a few matches where the crowd isn’t really with you!’
Away from tennis, Olivia loves to cook although she admits she doesn’t get as much opportunity as she would like as she is often travelling. She is a vegetarian and knows how important a balanced diet is to her overall health and fitness levels. ‘I am on it. It is second nature now to make sure I get all I need, especially protein. And there is so much more choice nowadays, it is much easier.’
She also follows a strict exercise routine, making sure there is lots of stretching, as well as gym work and on court practice, too. ‘It is a job – we travel with foam rollers and massage guns and on tour there are physiotherapists. You do have to work on your mobility, especially if you’ve had lots of long haul flights and you need strong muscles for long matches.’
Olivia thinks she will carry on playing the tour circuit for another four or five years, and then reassess where she is. ‘I’d like to have a family at some point and I might just do something different – use my degree. I don’t think I fancy being a coach but I’m just enjoying what I do at the moment.’
Her advice to any young aspiring tennis player is simply to persevere. ‘Just keep on at it. Eat well and enjoy it and don’t worry too much about rankings and ratings.’
Keep up-to-date with Olivia on her Instagram account, @olivianicholls1