Joss Rae: 'Billie Jean King made being an openly gay tennis player much easier'

Simon Briggs
The Telegraph
Joss Rae has brought a premature end to her professional playing career - Getty Images Europe
Joss Rae has brought a premature end to her professional playing career - Getty Images Europe

After retiring from professional tennis on Thursday, one of the first things Joss Rae will do with her time off will be to watch the Billie Jean King movie, Battle Of The Sexes.

With 13 Fed Cup appearances and a Commonwealth gold medal to her name, Rae is arguably the most successful female doubles specialist that Britain has produced. 

And one of the reasons she has been able to prosper on the tour, as an openly gay woman, is that she is treading in the footsteps of LGBT trailblazers such as King.

“I have personally felt the impact Billie Jean has had within tennis,” Rae says. “People like her, like Martina Navratilova and Amelie Mauresmo – I can’t even imagine what they must have gone through. 

“I have seen things change so much even in the seven years since I came out, so goodness knows what it must have been like back then. What I do know is that they lived through the hard times, they had an impact on millions of people, and that makes it easier for us.” 

Rae is part of the chorus of British tennis – a woman who rarely stood centre stage, but who has trodden the boards with sunny optimism since her late teens. Always the top prospect in her junior age group, she was whisked off to Roehampton in 2007 as part of the first National Tennis Centre catchment, alongside such noted party animals as Dan Evans and Marcus Willis. “It’s a bit of a myth that we were all hell-raisers,” she says, “but that period from 16 to 18 is a complicated time in anyone’s life and it was always going to be difficult when you put so many young people in that environment for the first time.”

<span>Rae's presence will be missed from Britain's Fed Cup squad</span> <span>Credit: getty images </span>
Rae's presence will be missed from Britain's Fed Cup squad Credit: getty images

Rae was only 19 when she won Commonwealth gold in Delhi, representing Scotland through her father’s ancestry and playing mixed doubles alongside Colin Fleming. But her singles career evaporated after a horrendous injury the following year. Playing through foot pain at Wimbledon, she discovered that a bone – the lateral sesamoid – had split so badly it had lost blood supply. She had it removed – there was no other option – and was told her movement would be unlikely to recover fully.

Doubles was the natural refuge for a woman whose hand skills now outstripped her mobility. And at around the same time that Rae was establishing a successful on-court partnership with Anna Smith, she met Josephine Garvey – a Yorkshire lass with a good enough tennis pedigree to have won a scholarship to the University of Houston. Last month, Garvey proposed.

“I was as surprised as anyone when I met Jo,” Rae says. “I had a boyfriend until that point, but then when I started looking back at things when I was younger, I was like ‘That was a clear sign, Joss’.

“Of course, there were difficult times, don’t get me wrong. When I told my mum, I took her for dinner, and she just cried the whole way through – not because she was cross with me, just because of the shock. In my house, it was the most awkward four months, because it does take time to get your head around it. But with my peers, my friends, I’ve not had one bad experience.

<span>Rae will be taking up&nbsp;a coaching post with the Lawn Tennis Association</span> <span>Credit: getty images </span>
Rae will be taking up a coaching post with the Lawn Tennis Association Credit: getty images

“The only thing has been the social-media trolls you get when you lose a match, they always say ‘You effing horrible lesbian person’. But I don’t know these people and I think they’re sad for messaging me anyway, so it doesn’t really affect me. I know I’m not high profile like Billie Jean or Mauresmo, but I still think we should talk about our sexuality, because if you can help one person to come out or have that first difficult conversation, why wouldn’t you?”

Rae’s retirement, at the early age of 26, has a lot to do with social issues – but not the kind that stem from discrimination. “The tour can be quite a brutal place,” she says. “If I ever see anyone in the morning I say ‘Hi, morning’, but I only get a hello back 50 per cent of the time, if that. From what I’ve seen of combined tournaments, it’s worse on the women’s tour than the men’s – something to do with being competitors, trying to beat each other out of money and points.

“I’ve been on the tour for four years and the only friends I have made are the British players and one Australian, Jess Moore. I’m a sociable person, and I’ve have a good family here, a good relationship, good friends. Now I’ve got a coaching post with the Lawn Tennis Association, and a wedding to think about. I feel like everything in my life is coming together.” 

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