“It doesn’t feel like a male-dominated space” - Geordie Grand Slammers member discusses inclusive ethos at North East LGBTQ+ tennis group
• 3 MINUTE READ
As Pride celebrations continue, we spoke to Helen Riddell - committee member of the Geordie Grand Slammers LGBTQ+ tennis group based in the North East of England - to talk about her own experiences growing up coming to terms with her sexuality, as well as providing an inside look into the making of the LGBTQ+ tennis group that has become such a significant part of her life.
Tell us a bit about your personal background and journey into tennis.
I’m 43 years old and I have been with my wife for 17 years and married for 14. We live in Gateshead in the North East of England.
I grew up in a typical, northern working-class family in Sunderland, and then quickly decided to leave my hometown for the bright lights and big city of Newcastle 15 miles up the road.
After a break from tennis of nearly 30 years, I currently play for two clubs. I play with the Geordie Grand Slammers on a Sunday, while also playing for a more local tennis club a couple of times a week in Blaydon.
Where did your passion for tennis begin?
An old neighbour of mine and a friend of my mum’s, he played tennis, and I must have been about nine or ten when he took me to his tennis club. He introduced me to playing a little bit, and at the time in Sunderland, the Puma Tennis Centre just opened. This was probably in the late 80s/early 90s. So, he encouraged me to get involved and start playing at the Tennis Centre.
I played until I was about 13/14, and as with most teenagers – particularly I think LGBTQ+ teenagers – I pulled away from all kinds of sport and group activities. I think at that time, I was struggling with who I was, and tennis carried quite an elitest reputation, so I felt quite isolated. I didn’t think I would fit into that stereotypical sporting environment, and that was my own insecurities and anxiety preventing me from getting involved. I just didn’t see a place for me. So, that’s why I withdrew.
I never really picked up a racket again until just after the first lockdown, but I had some old rackets and would often play with the family, and I’d think to myself, ‘oh, I used to love playing when I was a teenager.’ Then, after lockdown, I was on Facebook, and I saw an advert for Blaydon Tennis Club.
It was an open day and I toyed with the idea of getting back into it since I enjoyed it so much when I was younger. So, I went, and I ended up signing up to a block of coaching sessions, and I started going on a weekly basis, made friends, and then my passion for the game just grew and grew from there. It reminded me why I picked up a racket in the first place.
How did your involvement with the Geordie Grand Slammers come to light?
One of the coaches at Blaydon Tennis Club, Ian Pearson-Brown. He coached me for about a year, and then at the beginning of last year, he approached my friend Paul and I and explained that he was working with a few other local tennis players, including Dan Rogerson, Grandslammers Club Chair, trying to set up an LGBTQ+ tennis club in the North East, and we were really keen on helping out and getting involved.
It was during Pride last year that he then said that they were planning a taster session and asked us to come along. So, Paul and I helped out and invited others to come along and have a knock about with us to generate interest. A couple of weeks later, we started our first Sunday night sessions and that must have been during the back end of July/start of August last year, and it’s just grown from there.
How do you think the group have successfully created a warm, welcoming space for all genders?
I think it’s clear that everyone involved has a strong passion and drive for inclusivity, and I work with others on the committee to ensure that all our comms is inclusive and welcoming for anyone new.
What I really like about the Grand Slammers is that it has nothing to do with ability and it has everything to do with inclusion. Believe you me, there are players there that are absolutely cracking, but they mix in with people who have just picked up a racket and are playing for the first time. Everybody is just really happy to play together. This group is about people coming together in a safe space to be able to keep fit, active, and make friends. The ethos of the club is inclusion.
Having the opportunities to play with and encourage those with different gender identities back into or into the sport for the first time is great, it’s nice to be in an environment that lets that happen. It definitely doesn’t feel like a male-dominated space.
Just knowing that people have that safe space to come to, that’s something to be really proud of. Hopefully, over the years as we become more established, I’d love to see us supporting family sessions and younger people in their journeys.
How has your experience as a member of the LGBTQ+ community changed since you first joined the group to now?
It’s really refreshing to see how things have changed and how things have moved on. From feeling lost in that space as a teenager to now feeling part of a family with the Grand Slammers, it shows how much things have changed. It’s also a bit of a reminder that there are opportunities out there for everyone.
After the session we always stay for a drink or mix socially, most people stay behind afterwards, even if it’s just for 10/15 minutes just for a bit of craic with each other. Each week we see more and more people choosing to stay behind and feel more comfortable. Since the Grand Slammers was set up, I have made many long-term friends who I will meet up with outside of the group.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
I think the advice I would give to my teenage self would be to stop doubting yourself. Stop trying to second guess what other people are going to say or think, and just be yourself. Be kind to yourself.
Find out more
The Geordie Grand Slammers are part of a growing network of LGBTQ+ inclusive tennis and padel groups across Great Britain. To find out more about the network, and to find out more about their Pride tournament taking place at the Northumberland Club on Sunday the 25th of June, visit the Pride in Tennis website.