RYAN Peniston will step onto court at Wimbledon on Monday.

But if it was not for an apple tree in his Great Wakering back garden he might not be appearing at SW19.

Peniston will head into his first round clash against Swiss star Henri Laaksonen in high spirits after reaching four successive quarter-finals on grass.

However, it was an angry neighbour who first brought Ryan’s hitting ability to the attention of his father Paul.

“There was a knock on the door one day, a very loud knock actually, and I opened the door to a very irate neighbour shouting and bawling at me,” recalled Paul.

“He asked me if I couldn’t control my kids and said they were throwing stones into his garden while he was having a party and that several of his guests had been hit on the head.

Echo: Youngster - Ryan Peniston at WimbledonYoungster - Ryan Peniston at Wimbledon

“I didn’t know what he was talking about so I opened the back door and all three of my boys had tennis rackets in their hands.

“They were hitting apples that had fallen off the trees into the neighbour’s garden.

“I obviously shouted at them but I noticed Ryan was really good at it so I asked him to do it again!

“He had a little apple and he really did hit it.

“I obviously went back and apologised to the neighbour but from then on we played tennis more regularly.

“We went over to the Rec in Wakering but that’s honestly how it first started.”

Echo: Proud - dad Paul and mum Penny with Ryan Proud - dad Paul and mum Penny with Ryan

By then, Paul had become a regular tennis player himself.

But he also enjoyed an unusual introduction to the sport.

“I started playing from a complete and utter mishap,” said Paul.

“I had an incident at work when I was a train driver that messed me up quite a bit and I hit the bottle.

“I nearly lost my job and they told me to get my act together.

“After that I was in a pub in Southend, which I shouldn’t have been really.

“But I was in the Railway Hotel and another driver from the other shift came in.

“We started talking and he was going through a bad patch too.

“We both realised we had to do something so I suggested we played squash but he said no.

“He said cricket but I hate that and eventually we agreed on tennis.

“We found some rackets and went to Chalkwell Park.

“We started playing and it kept us out of the pubs.

“It made us healthier and we got our acts together.

“We played near enough every day and that’s how I got it into it.”

Echo: Flashback - Ryan Peniston at WimbledonFlashback - Ryan Peniston at Wimbledon

Paul’s interest in tennis ramped even more through Ryan’s natural ability and soon apples were swapped for sponge balls.

But the left hander initially started with the racket in his right.

“I got it wrong,” said Paul.

“I thought he was right handed and he started off as a righty.

“It’s a bit like the Rafa Nadal story really and he was right handed for a year or two.

“It’s probably why he’s got such a good backhand now because that used to be his forehand!”

Echo: Doing well - Ryan impressed at Southend LawnDoing well - Ryan impressed at Southend Lawn

Those strong ground strokes remain a key part of Ryan’s game.

And his attacking style also started at a very young age.

“Ryan was so small I had to teach him an attacking game,” said Paul.

“He had to take time away from his opponents because they really were twice the size of him.

“Some of them might even have been three times bigger and he did get slaughtered sometimes.

“But he never got depressed and always wanted to fight.”

Ryan did that playing at both Southend Lawn and Garon Park as a youngster.

But it was not just tennis he would practise.

Echo: Black belts - Ryan, Harry, Sam and Paul PenistonBlack belts - Ryan, Harry, Sam and Paul Peniston

“We’ve done martial arts for so long and the style we do there’s no mucking around,” said Paul.

“We take the opportunity and then that’s it, finished.

“You might not get that opportunity again and I’ve put that into the tennis too.

“I’ve never taught Ryan to just trade shots and I’ve never been a big believer in building up the point either.

“I’ve always taught him to take the opportunity when it’s there because that might be the only one you get, especially at the level he’s now at.

“Basically it’s a fight.

“The tennis court is like a boxing ring and you’re fighting, it’s the same scenario.”

Echo: Superstar - a young Ryan Peniston with Roger Federer Superstar - a young Ryan Peniston with Roger Federer (Image: The Peniston family)

Ryan has certainly had to fight hard to make it to the top of tennis.

And a chance trip to France led to his progression taking an unexpected twist at the age of 13.

“That was a mistake but it worked out to be a very good one,” said Paul.

“Robert Carter is the best hitter of a ball in Essex and him and Ryan are best mates to this day.

“They’ve known each other for years and his dad John and I would take the boys away sometimes to play tennis abroad in the school holidays.

“We went to a camp in Barcelona a few times because we knew Andy Murray had been there “But one time we went and there wasn’t any room.

“We got back in the car and it was either go right or left down the coast.

“We decided to go to France but we were driving along not really knowing where we were going.

“Then on the radio they mentioned a tennis academy in Nice.

“We wrote it down and drove straight there that night.”

Echo: Dreaming - Ryan Peniston at Centre CourtDreaming - Ryan Peniston at Centre Court

And the venue, called the ISP Tennis Academy, was soon to become Ryan’s home for the next five years.

“The next morning we went to see the chap who owns it called Charles Auffray,” said Paul.

“He played for France in the Davis Cup and we hit it off right away.

“The boys started playing and Charles told us he wanted to train them full-time but we explained they were still at school.

“He said the boys could do that over there as well so we went home and thought about it.

“We ended up going back two or three times and the boys loved it, especially Ryan.

“I spoke to my wife but I knew it would break her heart.

“It was good but at the same time it wasn’t.

“Ryan really wanted to go though so we agreed to it.

“He fell in love with it and we eventually got used to the situation but we missed him so much.”

Echo: Doing well - Ryan Peniston has reached four quarter-finals in succession Doing well - Ryan Peniston has reached four quarter-finals in succession

But France was not to be Ryan’s only time playing tennis abroad as he continued his education, on and off the court, at the University of Memphis.

“We went over there with the idea of seeing four or five colleges but we landed at Memphis and instantly loved it,” said Paul.

“I liked the head coach and the assistant coach and I thought it was terrific.

“They were genuine people and Ryan fell in love with it there too.

“There were a lot of English players there, including Joe Salisbury and it was great.

“Ryan was there for four and a half years and he graduated in business studies.

“All of the boys in the teams were fantastic.

“He's still in touch with them and so am I.

“They reached the highest they’ve ever been with that group of boys and got to the NCAA’s which is really tough.

“It’s the grand slam for college players so it’s a really high standard.”

Echo: Playing abroad - Ryan Peniston enjoyed his time at the University of MemphisPlaying abroad - Ryan Peniston enjoyed his time at the University of Memphis

After that, Ryan returned back home to Great Wakering.

But it was far from straight forward “He was having a tough time because he put a lot of pressure on himself,” said Paul.

“Then Covid hit just as he was really getting into his stride.

“We had to practise back where it all started, at the Rec in Wakering.

“We had two branches with some rope across it and it took me four days to clear the court before that too.”

Echo: Working hard - Ryan PenistonWorking hard - Ryan Peniston

But Paul soon began to realise it was time for a change.

“There was no-one here locally apart from Robert who could hit with him,” said Paul.

“I knew I couldn’t do it anymore and you have to know when to let go.

“He started going to London and the JTC academy.

“He knew a lot of them there already and really enjoyed it.

“He was travelling up and down every day but it was getting too much.

“In the end they made an arrangement where by he could stay at the National Tennis Centre which he did.

“It went on and he met his coach Mark (Taylor) there who is a great guy and I think you can see now it was the right decision.”

Echo: Supportive - Paul and Penny Peniston with son HarrySupportive - Paul and Penny Peniston with son Harry

Ryan has shone brightly this summer reaching four successive grass court quarter-finals, including a memorable run at Queen’s.

But the best is yet to come and Ryan will fulfil a lifetime ambition when he plays at Wimbledon on Monday.

“It's just surreal,” said Paul.

“We went there for the road to Wimbledon and I’ve still got the pictures.

“Like he said it’s a dream we don’t want to wake up from but he works so hard.

“He never ever gives up either and that’s probably the streak in him from when he was poorly.”

Echo: Unwell - Ryan Peniston was was diagnosed with rhabdomyosarcoma, a soft-tissue cancer at the age of just oneUnwell - Ryan Peniston was was diagnosed with rhabdomyosarcoma, a soft-tissue cancer at the age of just one

Ryan was diagnosed with rhabdomyosarcoma, a soft-tissue cancer at the age of just one.

And it was Paul who first discovered something was seriously wrong.

“The day it happened it was the most surreal day of my life,” recalled Paul.

“I was looking after him and was changing him.

“I turned him over and it was a like football had appeared in his tummy.

“I phoned my wife straight away and we thought maybe it was wind.

“But it was hard so we rushed down to the medical practice in Wakering who called an ambulance for us and within minutes we were at Southend Hospital.

“Penny met us there and then we were in an ambulance going to Great Ormond Street.

“We went to Barts after that and I can still remember every single second of it.

“I wish I didn’t remember any of it because it was an absolute nightmare and I don’t really like to go back to it.

“But so many people were incredible, including my wife Penny who is a senior nursing sister at Southend Hospital and was just so strong.”

Echo: Kind - Ryan Peniston donated his first career earnings to Barts HospitalKind - Ryan Peniston donated his first career earnings to Barts Hospital

Paul still continues to donate to Cancer Research UK every month and knows things could have gone differently for Ryan who required chemotherapy and surgery before having regular check up for years.

“When a doctor comes up to you and says the chemo isn’t working, it’s not what you ever want to hear,” said Paul.

“She told us there was a new one out but it was a lot, lot stronger.

“It looked like red wine and Ryan was one of the first ones to try it but there was no alternative.

“It had to be done and when it finally started to shrink we were all delighted but it wasn’t over.

“He had to have an operation and if the surgeon, who is an absolute saint, had made just one little mistake Ryan probably wouldn’t be here today.

“It really did come down to that.

“The oncologist, Doctor Kingston, was a real saint too and Ryan donated his first career earnings to the hospital too.”

Echo: On a high - Ryan Peniston On a high - Ryan Peniston

That start to life makes Ryan’s recent achievements all the more remarkable.

And Paul has no idea just how far his son can go.

“You just never know,” he smiled.

“He loves what he does and he’s in a great place mentally and physically.

“He’s got great people around him and he’s enjoying life.

“As a family we’re enjoying the trip with him and long may it last.

“We will all be there on Monday to support him.”

And Paul is hoping for happier memories of Wimbledon!

“The first time I ever went I was asked to leave and I vowed never to go back,” laughed Paul.

“I didn’t go for about 20 years until Ryan started to play there in the juniors.

“But now I can’t wait to go back!”


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