Inspiring Member Story – Current Men’s Singles Club Champion James Keothavong

We have recently celebrated our 5th birthday here at the Club and in celebrating this milestone we wanted to share some member stories.  Members are the heart and soul of the Club and absolutely help to make the Club the great place it is.  We love hearing inspiring stories about our members and how they use the Club and hope you do too!

It felt right to start with one of our Foundation Members, someone whose family has been with us from day one when the Club hadn’t even been built yet. The Club was also one of the reasons they moved from Hitchin to Bedford and since day one they have been regular visitors, so we were keen to find out more about them and the role the Club plays within their family.

James Keothavong won’t need an introduction for many, as his family name is “royalty” in the Tennis world.  James is a highly respected Internationally Certified Gold Badge Chair Umpire with a vastly impressive CV having worked 75 consecutive Grand Slams, and 15 Grand Slam singles and doubles finals with 20+ years’ officiating experience.  His younger sister Anne is also a household name having reached British No 1 and World No 48 in her 13-year professional career.  She is currently Great Britain’s Billie Jean King Cup Captain.  

James’ hit the ground running at the Club, by joining us at our grand opening and umpiring matches with visitor Greg Rusedski on the day and since then he regularly makes time to get on court at the Club whenever he isn’t officiating.

James is also our current Singles Men’s Club Champion and whilst he is very humble and modest about his playing ability, he’s still an awesome player and a pleasure to watch!  His two young girls are part of our junior coaching programme and regulars on our courts and in the pool.  They are also fans of the soft play area.

Tell us about your early years, James

I am the eldest of four siblings – two boys and two girls. Our parents, both of Lao origin met in London by chance and settled in Hackney, London in the late 1970’s.  Mum was fortunate to arrive in the UK as a refugee and Dad received a scholarship from Moscow to study here. The love of tennis began after Dad’s first visit to Wimbledon as a spectator and his crush on Chris Evert.  Although he had never played the game, that positive memory planted the seed and he vowed to introduce the game to his future children.  

We initially started playing short tennis from a young age (sponge ball), and then naturally progressed onto the full size court. We would play most days after school on the local park courts.  Dad would feed us balls and we’d be running around for hours honing all our shots. We had weekly individual lessons with coaches too but they came at a price. Money was tight and we didn’t have much.

Tennis and sport was the chosen pathway.  Mum and Dad had a plan and were fully committed to giving us the best possible chance to succeed. All our success, thus far is down to their sacrifice, hard work, guidance and love.  For that, we will always be grateful.

How did you get into Officiating?

I was ranked in the top 10 nationally at U16 level but realised I did not have the ability to make it all the way as a player – so I followed a different calling.

I was 16 when I worked my first Wimbledon in 1999 as a line judge. The LTA and the All-England Club set up an initiative in search of younger eyes as line officials. I was fortunate to pass the recruitment process and got selected – I have worked every Wimbledon since then.

What attributes does a good umpire need?

  • Strong communication skills with the knowledge of how to resolve challenging confrontations.
  • Patience and the ability to remain calm in highly stressful situations.
  • The ability to work in a team and to get the best out of others.
  • The ability to accept criticism and work well under pressure.
  • To sustain high levels of focus and concentration for long periods of time.

What is your greatest umpiring memory?

I actually have two. My first Wimbledon Men’s Singles Final in 2014 (Federer v Djokovic) was special but also the Australian Open 2017 Final (Federer v Nadal). Both were five set thrillers and historic occasions. 

Why is umpiring such a great job?

One of the biggest perks is travelling and getting to see the world.  Meeting new people and experiencing different cultures has helped shape me into the person I am today. I work alongside some of the best athletes in the world, in a sport I love – which is extremely rewarding.

What has been your most challenging assignment?

Umpiring a Davis Cup doubles match between Switzerland and the Czech Republic, which ended 24/22 in the 5th set.  Total duration was 7 hours 1 minute.  Needless to say, my concentration levels were tested and my legs were pretty stiff afterwards!

What do you like most about the Club?

Being able to play all year round, whatever the weather!  And being able to see my girls play and nurture their game through their coaching sessions and court time.  As I hope my story tells, family is very important to me, and the Club provides that opportunity to spend time together doing something we all love.  I’m also passionate about young people playing tennis so it’s great to see so many juniors on the courts at the Club. 

We would like to say a big thank you to James for taking the time to answer our questions. We could have asked many more, as he has so many interesting stories to share. 

James will be heading off to Paris soon for the French Open but then will be back in the UK for Queens and Wimbledon and to hopefully join us in playing at our Club Championships with the opportunity of retaining his title.

We are delighted to have James and his family as members and so glad that we can play such a big role in their health and wellbeing and spending time together as a family.