‘I don’t want drug cheats in tennis’
Wimbledon commentator and former British number one Andrew Castle reveals why he hasn’t always loved tennis
He has an adored halfSwedish wife, Sophia, two gorgeous daughters, Claudia, 21, and Georgie, 23, who is about to star in Mamma Mia! in the West End, and a career that has encompassed both Olympic-level sport and a top slot in daytime television. There is a talkradio show on LBC and a front-row seat in the Centre Court commentary box at Wimbledon every year. He even has good hair.
So you might forgive Andrew Castle for being a bit pleased with how life has turned out. Perhaps a bit pleased with himself.
But the former British number one is delightfully down to earth. Indeed, the day we meet the heavens have opened in full apocalyptic fashion – Castle, now 52, gallantly rides his motorbike through the downpour to the rescue, when I am unable to get through south London to Wimbledon where the tennis tournament opens today, for our interview.
Moreover, Castle – from the word go (and there are a lot of words – he’s a proper chatterbox) – is warm, selfdeprecating and full of integrity.
‘‘I wouldn’t have survived so long on television if I hadn’t just been myself,’’ he says. ‘‘Certainly, if you knew my family, you’d know that’s how we all are. We are very passionate and debate a lot. We’re very honest.’’
No wonder, then, that he has no time for drugs in tennis. ‘‘If we can’t trust what we are watching – then there’s no point watching. That’s it.’’
He is referring, of course, to Maria Sharapova, currently appealing against a two-year ban by the International Tennis Federation for taking meldonium. ‘‘She has plenty of fans, but I’m a commentator and I love my sport. I don’t want drugs cheats in it.
‘‘If her ban is reduced and she comes back, I can just about live with it. But we should be thinking about all the people beaten by those who had gained an unfair advantage – not the ones who have let themselves down.’’
Castle will always be on the side of the underdogs, I suspect. His own success in tennis – he reached world number 80 in singles, number 40 in doubles – was achieved despite his background, not because of it.
Growing up in Taunton, Somerset, to working-class parents, Frank, a master fishmonger, and Lyn, who together ran a fish and chip shop, with four older siblings, Castle says he is frustrated that people assume his success in tennis means he comes from a privileged background. ‘‘I’m not overly proud in general, but it is important that people know I didn’t come from a privileged background. Things were not laid out on a plate for me.’’
Castle first found a taste for tennis when he was nine, when a friend took him to play at a nearby court. He recalls playing for eight hours, drinking orange squash and getting sunburnt. But he was hooked immediately and began lessons.
At 11, he won the UK under-12 national tennis championships, and as a result landed a full scholarship to Millfield School. His parents were hugely supportive but the family didn’t have anywhere near the income needed for Castle to establish himself in the UK. His father went bankrupt and both parents ended up working at a minicab firm.
‘‘People don’t understand when you have to plan to put petrol in the car. That where there’s a will there’s not always a way.’’
At 17, Castle moved to the US, first to Florida, and then winning a college scholarship to Kansas State University, Witchita where he made a life. Of sorts.
‘‘I lived in this big 1895 house, which was squalid inside. I paid my rent for this dump by going to the plasma centre twice a week and having needles stuck in me for $10 a time.’’
His housemates kept bowls of bullets around the house, and a dog called Kaiser, which was half-mad, after being bitten by a black widow spider. ‘‘Let’s just say my life was not exactly sheltered at the time.’’
After four and a half years, perpetually homesick, Castle came back with a degree and ready to play professional tennis. He made his Davis Cup debut within six months.
‘‘It simply couldn’t have happened for me in the UK,’’ he says. So he’s clearly pleased the UK tennis talent pipeline has improved in the past 30 years. And amused. The young hopeful Katie Swann – who has won a wild card into Wimbledon this year – is now also studying at Kansas State under his old coach. ‘‘She can play,’’ he says. ‘‘She hits the ball hard; I can vouch for that.’’
The coverage of women players at Wimbledon is often criticised. Is there any truth to the suggestion that they get less air time? ‘‘Utter nonsense,’’ he says. ‘‘I’m in those editorial meetings at the BBC; I know they are fair. Perhaps it seems that way because men’s matches are simply longer.’’
So should women play five sets or men three, as has also been mooted? ‘‘I don’t think there is any appetite for change,’’ he says firmly.
What about the other cries of sexism? What does he make of John Inverdale’s comments about Marion Bartoli not being ‘‘a looker’’ – especially as both will be commentating for the BBC this year?
‘‘Look, when you’ve been on air for up to 14 hours a day for two weeks, not everything that comes out of your mouth is perfect. Perhaps you lose concentration. I think people should be allowed to say sorry and move on. They have worked together subsequently and are fine. John is a proper pro; he just made a mistake.’’
It’s not an error you’d believe Castle would ever make, though. His professional expertise has been honed through 10 years of live broadcasting every day on the GMTV sofa. On his first day, comedian Jack Dee sent a bottle of champagne and a card, saying ‘‘Thank God it’s not live or you’d be s––––––– yourself.’’ Luckily, Castle says he only saw the note once he’d got through his first programme.
His mother, Lyn, who died in 2004, was a guiding light for him throughout, although she left his father when Castle was 15 for a man called Colin, who drove a lorry. Was he affected by it?
‘‘Well, it was comedic looking back. At one point, they were all working for a taxi company in Taunton, which is how my mother met Colin. I recall Dad grabbing a handful of Mars bars from a petrol station and throwing them at him.’’ He adds: ‘‘I didn’t have a sense of unhappiness, which is a credit to everyone. But there is no such thing as a good divorce. There was a deep hurt.’’
Later, he admits that while in the US, he ‘‘cried a lot. My toughening up was over there. I was lonely. And once I was on the tennis tour, I kept my own counsel.’’ Even after he
Andrew Castle with his wife Sophia, in 2013
In the Centre Court commentary box with Tim Henman and John McEnroe, left; in his playing days at Wimbledon, below