Born in Kent in the United Kingdom, Robert Dee, arrived in this world on January 18th 1987, during one of the coldest British winters in recent records.
At the age seven, while at school I picked up my first tennis racket and realised pretty quickly that it would be a sport I could grow to love.
Tennis would have to wait though and, while I played in minor junior tournaments in the ensuing years, the deal with my parents was that I would not to take it up seriously until I had some reasonable education under my belt.
So, at the age of 16, having just completed my exams and receiving creditable pass marks, I decided to give up school, put my education on hold for a while and chase my dream of becoming a professional tennis player.
Having chosen not to start playing seriously until 16, I realised my professional tennis career would start later than most. I knew I would not be a 21 year old legend, but maybe by the age of 23 or 24 I could be knocking on the door of world class tournaments and moving up the world ranking lists. Well, that was the plan anyway!
First stop on my chosen career path was to move to Bradenton, Florida to work with the legendary Nick Bollettieri. World famous coach of Andre Agassi, Maria Sharapova, Tommy Haas and many others. He has a reputation for improving mental and physical strength and I couldn’t wait to meet him.
The Bollettieri regime was intensive, very tough and austere. Training starts at 4.45am, well before the sun rises, which meant getting up at 4.30am. For a sixteen year old that in itself was a tough first lesson.
Two hours of intensive morning training, followed by breakfast, physical fitness, footwork training, lunch, a further two to three hours in the afternoon, then a gym training session, dinner and sleep. Just in time to start it all again a few hours later.
It was no holiday, not much time for socialising because at the end of the day the only thing you really wanted to do was sleep, but the experience was incredible. I brought with me commitment and determination and Nick instilled in me a deep sense of self-respect and professionalism.
Almost two years after arriving at Bollettieri I was granted a wild card at a Mexican challenger event. It wasn’t as hard a match as I would have expected from a main draw challenger but it was my first time in such a high standard of tournament and I was playing a Mexican on home ground with hundreds of supporters cheering him on. The nerves kicked in pretty quickly!
I was conscious that I had started late and that I needed to make up time. So, with the blessing of my coaches in Florida, I decided to leave to gain my experience on the world circuit by playing as many world ranking matches I could get into, anywhere I could and, in the process, hopefully see some of the world and gain valuable tournament experience.
Professional tennis at Futures qualifying level is many things but jet set and luxurious are not terms you could ever associate with it.
Traveling to countries like Iran, Senegal, Rwanda, Botswana, Venezuela, Kenya, and Sudan may sound daunting and it was a real challenge both physically and mentally. But while the journeys were not always easy or comfortable, the experiences were unbelievable.
When visiting some of these countries you see the great poverty, widespread illness and many dangers all around. There were hotels without windows, with rats running through the bedrooms at night and food that you would only eat when truly hungry. But there were also real people; kind and genuine people struggling to survive.
Their suffering taught me a great deal about myself and how we see ourselves in the West generally. Their constant struggle left many lasting memories that I cherish to this very day. They also taught me to strive for what I believe in and to be determined throughout.
After a year of “on off” travel and with some great life changing experiences under my belt, I decided to base myself in Spain where I knew the competition would be amongst the toughest in the world and where tennis is widely regarded as a sport for everyone to play.
My parents had been regular visitors to La Manga and I had trained many times with Dani & Miguel Dios at La Manga Club. I’d heard that Dani had left the club to start his own “Costa Este” (East Coast) academy and at the time was working out of a small public tennis club in Los Alcacarez, just north of La Manga. So I went along for a week’s training session and ended up staying for over four years…
It was very different from training at IMG Academies that has some of the most impressive and expensive facilities in the world to playing my tennis at the Costa Este Academy, which was starting out with very basic facilities. However, it seemed somehow appropriate to try and learn Spanish tennis in a true Spanish tennis club. Many world ranked players play the RFET (Spanish Federation) matches because the prize money is good, the competition is strong and the standard is high. Even Rafael Nadal started on this circuit. I enjoyed working with the Dios brothers enormously and they taught me why it is important to work hard and remain humble.
I never believed that by the time I was 21 I would have achieved fame within the tennis world, and certainly not for the reasons I did. I can honesty say now that all the experiences and people I met in tennis from the age of 16 helped me deal with the so-called fame. I received support from many, even Roger Federer (thanks Roger), but those closest to me helped me stand up for what I believed in.
I have been back in London for many years now, finished university and pursued a career in financial services and like all of you, always looking for the next adventure.
Although my tennis career is behind me I still have fond memories. I realise just how much professional sport taught me and how fortunate I am to have been given the opportunity to follow one of my dreams.