LONDON, England — Playing with Grand Slam champions like Venus Williams, Victoria Azarenka and Sloane Stephens would be a dream for most aspiring young tennis players.
That’s exactly what Jessica Matthews, 18, has been able to do for the past three weeks as part of a team of five official hitting partners at this year’s Wimbledon. The British teenager sat down with wtatennis.com to talk about his experience.
How did you get the job of beating partner?
Jessica Matthews: I played juniors here last year and saw older friends like [ATP pro] Sean Hodkin does it. It seemed like a great opportunity, so I went for it this year. There was no interview, but the selectors Google your results and see how your game is.
What does your average day look like?
Jessica Matthews: I usually come in around 9 and starts beating half an hour later. But every day varies – it can be seven hours of hitting, which is really intense, or just two or three hours.
At the start, before the tournament started, the players would like to hit for about an hour or even longer, but now it’s more about a half hour warm-up. Just doing basic drills, whereas before it was drilling very specific shots. During the tournament, players aren’t so much into improving a specific shot or focusing on a weakness. It’s more about improving your overall game and getting into a rhythm.
How much notice do you get about what to do?
Jessica Matthews: They usually send a schedule the night before, so you know roughly what the day will look like. But sometimes there are emergencies — for example, if a player’s partner doesn’t show up on time, you’ll quickly get a call to come to the court. So you have to run all the way. You must always be on standby.
The day before the tournament I did a four-hour session of serving, then was called up to do another hour. Unfortunately, one of the other hitters got sunstroke, so I was then called up to do another hour — and that was also serving. Yes, after five or six hours of serving it felt like my arm was going to fall off.
The players might only hit for an hour or two each, but you can be on the court for seven hours. How do you maintain your own energy level?
Jessica Matthews: You really need to control when you eat, get maximum sleep and go to bed really early. In my free time, I don’t usually walk around the place too much; I pick a seat, hopefully in the shade because it’s been super hot, and try to stay relaxed and hydrated. The players’ restaurant is really nice — I eat lots of protein to fill up.
Do nerves come into play at all?
Jessica Matthews: At first I was super nervous. It’s such big names that you hit with. And you have to not only perform to their level, but execute the specific shots they want. It’s quite unnerving. But after maybe the second day I got used to it. I got into it and focused on my own game. I just remembered that the players are grateful that you are there in the first place and they have someone to fight with.
You’re the only female member of the team – does that mean you’re more in demand?
Jessica Matthews: Yes — the girls like to hit with other girls because we hit the ball very differently. Much flatter, less spinny. Boys serves jump super high, I’d say maybe twice as high, so it’s more ideal for them to practice with me. There is also a left-hander in the team and he is also in high demand because he is the only one.
What have been the most memorable player experiences so far?
Jessica Matthews: Victoria Azarenka was amazing. I had a lot in common with both of her coaches – they had been to my school and knew my childhood coach. When we finished playing, she actually took her son to the court and started drilling with him, which was super adorable. He was actually next door with a huge poster cheering her on while we were training, so it was fun.
Sloane Stephens was really friendly and relaxed. She just wanted to do a light hitting session with intensity here and there. Then she wanted to play twice more and specifically asked for me, so that was really nice.
So some players prefer a light hit, but does anyone really go all out?
Jessica Matthews: Oh yes. Some of the players will just drill from side to side so I come off the pitch dripping off the pitch. I have to text people halfway and say ‘Please bring water!’ But especially before the tournament began, many players wanted to go that hard – it was more conditioning and endurance training than just consistency.
Perhaps Venus Williams was the most intense. It was so much fun, so much fun. She was really into running from side to side – and wanted me to run from side to side.
Do you feel your own game has improved after hitting with top players?
Jessica Matthews: My own level has definitely improved, partly because I am so afraid of missing the ball.
I’m so focused and I’m so into it, so just subconsciously I just make more balls and be more consistent. Obviously they hit it super fast compared to everyone else so I’m getting used to the power and pace. And I get inspiration from them, they make you want to play more and improve yourself more.
What are your own tennis plans after Wimbledon?
Jessica Matthews: I am currently playing ITFs here and there and I am going to the University of Iowa in August to play Division I college tennis. Looking forward to really competitive matches and their facilities are amazing. Afterwards, I hope to continue playing the professional tour and improve to be the best player I can be. Hopefully I will be on these great courts one day.