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You cannot be serious!

Kevin Cooney | 15.09.2014

Tennis fan Kevin Cooney tells us how he landed a job as a courtesy car driver at this year’s Wimbledon Championships, and what it’s like conversing with the star players.

Kevin CooneyI have always been interested in tennis and started going to the Wimbledon Championships whilst still at school. I used to dream about walking out onto Centre Court, rubbing shoulders with the world’s best players and drinking Pimms all day. Despite playing tennis from an early age I knew that I would never reach the dizzy heights of Rafa Nadal or Novak Djokovic, so when I saw an advertisement on the internet to be a driver at the Championships, I put pen to paper.

Every year, Wimbledon engages the services of almost 300 people to drive the 150 courtesy vehicles supplied by an international car rental company to transport players, coaches, VIPs and officials in and around the Wimbledon area. Drivers come from all walks of life and include ex-police officers, judges, solicitors, accountants, housewives, taxi drivers, teachers and even a retired local government audit manager like me.

Interview ace

The initial interview process was quite probing, with an informal discussion followed by two further interviews focusing on map reading/navigation and destinations within the greater London area, as well as the Highway Code. Not having been in an interview situation for a number of years, I was very apprehensive that my stammer would rear its ugly head and prevent me from securing the position. For this reason I worked extra hard beforehand to ensure that the breathing technique I had learned with Anne Blight on the Starfish Project course, and had been using for the past twenty years, was working effectively, which enabled me to feel confident with my speech. For me, preparation was key and before the interview I practised the technique on the telephone and put myself in numerous social situations, whilst also ensuring that my Highway Code and knowledge of London hotels were up-to-date.

Amazingly I was accepted. After successfully passing the interview process I had to undergo two days of practical driver training with an ex-police driver, which sounded daunting but was very enlightening. Other areas covered included security procedures, vehicle care, health and safety and using the radio intercom. It was with great pride that I donned my Wimbledon uniform with the all-important security passes gaining me access to the ground. So there I was, two days before the main Championships were to begin, waiting outside the competitors’ entrance lounge waiting for my first assignment. Although the crowds of tennis fans were not due to arrive for another 48 hours, I had a great feeling of excitement driving into Wimbledon knowing that I was playing a part, albeit a small one, in the world’s most prestigious tennis tournament.

I had a great feeling of excitement driving into Wimbledon knowing that I was playing a part, albeit a small one, in the world’s most prestigious tennis tournament.

In control

I was hoping, well, praying really, for Maria Sharapova to appear, but my first assignment was to take a well-known sporting celebrity to a prestigious hotel in Chelsea, where he and his wife were staying. Since then I have ‘had in the back of my car’ (as an ex-London cab driver friend of mine used to say) many of the top Wimbledon stars and VIPs, the majority of whom were very interesting and great to talk to. I never really had a problem talking to the people I transported in my car or on the occasions I had to use the two-way radio. I was able to use my technique effectively, ensuring that I was in control of my stammer, rather than my stammer being in control of me.

Being involved with the Starfish Project has given me the confidence and the ability to really enjoy meeting and chatting to people, something I would never have dreamed of in the days when my confidence was low and I wasn’t in control of my speech (thank you to Anne Blight and all the friends I have met at Starfish for their support and encouragement over the years).

This summer was my second year as a Wimbledon driver and I enjoyed it as much as last year. You are able to watch the tennis when not on shift, which is great if you are a tennis fan like me. You do spend a certain amount of time sitting in the drivers’ lounge waiting for jobs, though, and there are some early starts and late finishes. Last year I didn’t get home until 3.30am after collecting several VIPs from the annual post-tournament Wimbledon Ball.

During the fortnight I met some really interesting people and enjoyed some lovely stories and experiences. The highlight for me this year was driving one of the European VIPs to Biggin Hill airport with a close protection officer in the car with me and an unmarked police escort following behind. Unfortunately, to coin a well-known phrase, ‘what goes on in Wimbledon, stays in Wimbledon’. For this reason I am unable to divulge some of the more amusing stories and events I have witnessed and experienced so far. However, if you want to experience these for yourself, you know now what to do. And if asked by John McEnroe, “Are you serious about being a Wimbledon driver?” the answer is a most definite “Yes”!

From Speaking Out Summer/Autumn 2014 edition, p9.