A whole new world for Ward as retired Northampton tennis ace looks ahead

Alex Ward with chairman of his beloved Cobblers, Kelvin Thomas
Alex Ward with chairman of his beloved Cobblers, Kelvin Thomas

For so many years, Alex Ward has been the flag-bearer for Northampton tennis.

Every success the 28-year-old has had has been greeted with great joy in the town, with fans of all sports quick to congratulate him.

From being part of the Davis Cup squad in 2010 to playing at Wimbledon in 2016 and 2017, Northampton has watched on when one of its favourite sons has shone in the professional arena.

But recently Ward decided the time was right to call time on a career that at one point saw him rise to as high as 242 in the world.

He was immediately sent a good luck message by Scottish star Andy Murray, but what meant just as much to the affable ace was the support he received from those he didn't even realise were watching him.

"Andy Murray messaged me straight away after - he was one of the first people to message me," Ward said. "We trained a lot together and he said it was always great training with me and said 'good luck in the future', which is nice.

"There have also been a lot of messages come from people I didn't know were following me, who I guess checked up on my results.

"It showed there's a lot of people watching out for me over my career."

And when asked what it was like to be Northampton's main tennis man, Ward added: "I loved it.

"I know other players who are from bigger places and are a similar ranking to me and there will be a few tennis guys in their area, but I got a lot of support from Northampton.

"I was that guy and I enjoyed it.

"It's served me well to be from Northampton rather than a bigger city.

"Anyone who does well in a sport in Northampton you pick up on, like (England cricket star) David Willey who I went to school with, and that's what happened with me."

Ward and Willey both attended Northampton School for Boys before the former took the plunge and travelled to Barcelona to pursue his tennis dream at the age of 16.

"I played a lot of sports when I was little and my dad was a tennis coach so I spent a lot of time in and around lessons," Ward explained. "I picked up a racket when I was four.

"When I was 16 I went out to Barcelona to play full-time and I decided to see if I could be a professional.

"I didn't have too many expectations and I didn't know what was out there but I spent two and a half years in Spain and got a world ranking.

"I came back to England and trained with the LTA and since then I've pretty much been on tour.

"I was so homesick when I was in Spain at first.

"I loved the tennis aspect but at night I found it so tough. The culture shock of going from Northampton to Barcelona...

"Now, travelling is so much easier with things like FaceTime but then you couldn't just call whenever, you'd have to set it up and it was tough.

"I loved the tennis and that's what got me through, but it was tough at the start in Spain.

"I remember ringing my dad a couple of times and telling him I didn't know anyone there and I wanted to come home.

"But I stuck at it and after a couple of months it was fine because I had friends out there.

"Looking back, it was a big moment because I could have gone down a completely different path.

"It was a big point in my life.

"Going out there prepared me really well for the years as a tennis pro because I know guys who stayed at home, got to a good level and they found that travel hard.

"But I'd had it straight away because I was travelling out of Spain for tournaments and it was the same as being in Spain.

"It was probably the best introduction for me because after that, everything felt easier."

In 2009, Ward returned to train in London, with the Lawn Tennis Association offering to pay all of his expenses.

He was part of Leon Smith's very first Davis Cup squad for the clash with Turkey at Eastbourne a year later, but he didn't get a hit.

Even so, his ranking had risen to 800 and he spent the next five years with the LTA before cuts were made and the axe fell on him.

After that, he went it alone and in 2016 he was handed a Wimbledon wildcard, becoming the first county player to step on court at the famous tournament since Billy Knight in 1966.

Ward lost in the first round to Belgium's David Goffin but was back a year later, having qualified on his own merit.

He met fellow Brit Kyle Edmund and won the first set but was eventually beaten in four despite a gritty display.

"The first time I got a wildcard and it was a dream to play at Wimbledon but the second time was a stand-out moment for me because I qualified for it," Ward said.

"I had quite a few injuries and came back and got to Wimbledon in 2016 and 2017. I'm proud that I stuck at it and achieved it after all those years.

"Kyle started out quite nervous when I played him and I had the momentum of qualifying. It was awesome to take the first set but he came back and won it.

"It was my mum's 60th on that day and it was just great.

"It was the best day of my career, definitely."

But days like that were anomalies rather than the norm, and Ward, whose final game ended in a 6-2, 6-0 defeat to Thai-Son Kwiatkowski at an ATP Challenge event in Vancouver in August, eventually decided enough was enough.

"I just got tired of the sacrifice, the amount of travelling and the amount of effort I was putting in," he said.

"I'd had enough and I wanted a bit more of a settled life.

"The money I wasn't making wasn't great. I was managing to make enough money to keep on travelling but I wasn't making any profit to put in the bank.

"I had the gut instinct when I went out of a tournament and a week later I called it.

"I was pretty lucky to play professionally at all and I just felt it was the right time.

"I don't think I'll regret it. I'm just looking forward to doing something new.

"I've taken a bit of a break and I've thought about coaching so I've started to do a couple of qualifications.

"I'd like to stay in tennis.

"I've spent 10 years playing professionally and I've spent a long time on the tour so I can see myself coaching. I'm pretty sure I'll go into that."

Having been on tour for so long, Ward admits the real world has eluded him for some time.

And he is now enjoying doing everyday things, with watching his beloved Cobblers, who he recently saw play against Notts County, and learning to drive top of his immediate agenda.

"I didn't get round to ever doing my driving licence when I was playing so I'm actually doing lessons for that, which is remarkable at 28 in a way," he said. "Stuff like that got put on a back-burner.

"I didn't earn enough money to be able to comfortably afford somewhere to live and you're always travelling.

"It feels like I'm just out of Uni into the real world - it's very different."