Neil Sonne remembers fondly how he first got into tennis.
"I started at about 9 or 10 and Dad was the main influence. He said to me ‘you're not going to a tennis court until you can hit the ball against the garage wall at least 50 times, because I'm not chasing balls all day'. That was one thing I always remembered and cherished because I know what it's like, you hit one ball to a kid and they don't hit it back to you."
Born in Rangiora and raised in Springston, a small town in the Ellesmere district, Neil is still reaping the benefits of his dad Francis' influence nearly 40 years later. Not only is he the No 1 male player for the unbeaten Marlborough Foxes team leading this year's premier interclub competition, a couple of weeks ago he was crowned the Marlborough club's men's singles champ.
Along with wife Nikki, daughter Jess and son Jack, Neil came to Marlborough in 2006. After 18 years as a prison officer at Rolleston prison, he was ready for a change and, following a bit of coaxing from sister and Marlburian Gill Bird, brought a house on 21.5 acres of vineyard in Spring Creek.
It wasn't long before he stamped his mark on the Marlborough tennis scene. Neil played in the Marlborough club's Bennett Cup team against Nelson in November 2006 and at the end of that season was the Marlborough Association's men's player of the year. Since then, he has played in a number of Bennett Cup matches, represented Marlborough in the Winstanley Shield and Lucas Cup and been one of the premier competition's top male players.
Considering his vast experience, it was hardly a surprise he quickly became a prominent Marlborough player.
Neil said growing up in such a strong tennis town is what drew him into the game.
"Everyone in the whole Ellesmere district played tennis. Springston is a tiny little town and we had something like 120 members in an area smaller than Grovetown. It was rugby in the winter and tennis in the summer, all the families played."
After hours of belting the ball into his dad's garage, tennis became more serious at high school and by 15 he was top of the Springston club and playing in the senior team. Numerous club titles came during those years, but, with work commitments and the time-consuming trip into Christchurch playing their part, a career in tennis was never a serious thought. Club tennis and town vs country rep matches were where Neil plied his trade.
He admits 38 years of playing tennis, along with a long rugby career which went until he was 32, has knocked his body about it, but giving away the game is still a long way from his thoughts.
"It's a young man's sport really I reckon. You don't think of tennis as being a tough game . . . but it's quite hard work running round on those hard surfaces. It's not so bad when you're young, the body hasn't had any knocks and you haven't pulled and stretched things over the years.
"But you don't stop playing because of a few injuries. It's a long time retired and that's what I keep telling people, you just keep going for as long as you can."
As they get older and the body becomes more fragile, tennis players often display a preference for doubles. Neil, though, still prefers singles.
"I don't really enjoy doubles that much to be honest, unless it is with a far superior player to myself. Singles is more my game because there's only two people out there and you can only blame yourself for what happens. When you're playing someone you can work out their weaknesses . . . it's a real mental game. It's a bit like chess and I like chess."
An avid salmon and trout fisherman in his spare time, these days Neil splits his time between looking after the vineyard and a part-time job as a police jailer, escorting prisoners to and from Marlborough and Blenheim District Court.
Not for much longer, though. In mid-January, the Sonne family are leaving Marlborough and moving back to Ellesmere. And while the Marlborough tennis fraternity will lose Neil, his talents are not going to go unused. He is looking forward to getting back and playing for his beloved Springston club and plans to be on the court for a few years yet.
"I'll keep playing for as long as I can and I'll keep dropping down the order every year. About No 4 would be nice, just cruise and take it nice and easy."
- The Marlborough Express