When the Covid-19 pandemic hit last March, Katie Boulter had already been locked out of tennis for nine of the preceding 12 months. Her breakthrough 2019 season had been curtailed by a spinal stress fracture, and after months of rehab, 2020 looked mainly off limits.
The 24-year-old could well have wallowed in her misfortune, but she had friend Laura Robson — who knows better than most about injury setbacks — at hand to offer some perspective. "Laura was doing renovations to her house right before the first lockdown, so she ended up moving into mine," Boulter says. "We were there for a few months together, we've always been pretty close."
Wimbledon girls' champion at just 14, Robson had more promise than any other female British player in recent memory. But now 27, her career is threatening to be all but over after barely starting because injuries have kept her from competing consistently since 2013 — the latest a serious hip operation in January. "She's a fantastic girl, and has been through a lot," Boulter says of her impromptu housemate. "It's horrible to see a competitor go through a lot of injuries and not be able to fulfil everything she is capable of. Because really, she's an unbelievable player. I really hope she'll be able to pick it all up again injury-free."
Boulter meanwhile has been back on the Tour since late last year, and is on the comeback trail. This week she makes her return to Great Britain's Billie Jean King Cup (formerly Fed Cup) team for a play-off against Mexico, along with Heather Watson, Katie Swan, Harriet Dart and debutant Jodie Burrage. Boulter has been in good form of late, with a closely fought three-set loss to Naomi Osaka in Melbourne in January, and wins over top 100 players Coco Gauff and Kristyna Pliskova that belie her world ranking of 291.
They are promising signs for a player who finally broke through to 82nd in the world ahead of her back injury, which was aggravated during her last appearance in the BJK Cup in April 2019 — during her remarkable six consecutive wins to lift Britain into the World Group for the first time in 26 years. "I have a lot of flashbacks to those days, a lot of them that actually give me goosebumps when I think about it now," Boulter says of the dramatic scenes at the Copper Box Arena during that win over Kazakhstan. "I can still picture myself in the moment, and there are only certain moments like that in your career. I'll definitely cherish it."
The memories are bittersweet though. Her heroics were unnecessary as, regardless of her win, Britain were gifted the equivalent World Group status in the new tournament format. For all the pride she feels looking back, Boulter acknowledges now how catastrophic playing that final match with an injury was, as it ruined her season and blew the top 100 ranking she had worked years to create. "There are moments to push through and moments not to, and unfortunately I made a mistake," Boulter says. "I 100 per cent pushed too far. I'm a competitor, a fighter, and sometimes those things get in the way. I do wish that I'd looked after my body more and, when I feel pain, maybe believe myself. It's a tough lesson for me because it counted out my 2019 when I was at my peak. I found it pretty hard to deal with."
Nor is it the only setback she has experienced in her short career, as in 2015 Boulter missed most of the season due to chronic fatigue. "She's certainly used to the adversity," Jeremy Bates, LTA Women’s National Coach who has been working full-time with Boulter since 2018, but been on hand since she was a teenager, says. He adds: "I think, frankly, she really deserves a bit of a run at it and a full year on the tour."
And Bates thinks the BJK Cup could be the perfect springboard, saying: "There's no ranking points, but there's a huge and unique pressure playing for your country. It has massive benefits to your day job."
Boulter agrees, and though she is not placing too many constraints on her aims this season, does see herself as potentially better for her experience.
She said: "I feel like I'm back in a good place and I'm almost glad I went through it, because I'm only stronger for it. It's important to have consistency now and get my rankings back where I want it to be — that is my ultimate goal now. I want to be pushing on next year without a doubt and getting to a career high."
Boulter is one of four members of the squad who are supported by the LTA’s Pro Scholarship Programme, which provides world-class coaching, medical and financial support to Britain’s elite young players with the potential to reach the top 100 within five years. Watch the action live on lta.org.uk or the LTA’s YouTube Channel