DENISE Lewis narrows her eyes as she walks towards the net. “You’ve got that look in your eyes,” she growls, pointing her finger. “It’s that smug look you have when you’re winning.”
A little smile escapes before the former Olympic athletics champion turns on her heel, walks back towards the baseline and prepares for her next shot.
The Mirror has been following Denise’s Allplay challenge – a tennis journey that will take her from a novice to someone with the skills to win a celebrity match at the Aegon Masters in December.
I’ve been sent down to help Denise practise her game by running around the court with her. But thankfully it’s not me on the other side of the net, it’s her husband Steve.
He’s come down to “lend a hand” but his presence seems to have only ignited the fierce competition between the couple.
Denise, who won gold in the heptathlon at the 2000 Olympics, laughs: “Steve never even considered playing tennis before I got involved in Allplay. He’d never thought about it before I started playing.
“But when he saw the improvement I’d made after a couple of lessons he started being competitive – it was hilarious.
“Now he’s trying to find any friend he knows who might play with him so he can build up his skills and beat me.”
Denise, 39, tells me she gave Steve some useful tips at first which are now coming back to haunt her.
Aces: Denise Lewis with The Mirror's Melissa Thompson
“I beat him a few times right at the beginning. He couldn’t even hold a racket properly,” she says. “But I was able to help him. And now that he’s improved, he beats me. So I refuse to play against him.”
Denise has no such qualms about facing me though. Perhaps someone’s tipped her off about my ability – or lack of it.
As she assumes a perfect tennis pose at the other end of the court, I suddenly wished I’d practised more. Before long I’m misfiring balls everywhere.
“Don’t worry, you’re doing fine,” Denise tries to reassure me as yet another shot flies past her head.
Her coach Tom Dale is keeping a watchful eye out and tells me to stop apologising – which is difficult when Denise rarely gets to return a ball.
Thankfully, after 10 minutes, she puts me out of my misery and we sit down to chat. I’m perspiring and out of breath but Denise looks the picture of calm as she picks at a croissant.
When we first joined Denise in June, at the start of her six-month journey, she was enthusiastic but lacked the skills.
Now, she can hold her own – but that’s still not quite good enough.
She says: “As an athlete I do have high standards and I get really frustrated with the game – incredibly frustrated. I can see myself being better because I think I’ve still retained a lot of strength from my athletics days. So I know I’ve got the potential to become a much better player – now I just want to do it.”
Denise is training so intensely to perfect her moves before she takes part in the Allplay celebrity exhibition match on December 1, at the Royal Albert Hall, with TV stars Lorraine Kelly and Tim Lovejoy and DJ Jamie Theakston.
Ex-professional player Greg Rusedski likened her style to tennis superstar Rafael Nadal when she first picked up a racket, but Denise says she is not sure she’s there just yet.
“I was surprised at how little I knew about the game when I came to play,” she says. “Everyone thinks they can just return in tennis but it’s a lot harder than it looks. I’m very conscious that the day is fast approaching when we’ll be playing in front of a lot of people.
“I don’t have a preference for whose team I want to be on – I just want to be on the winning team.”
Highly strung: Denise Lewis' Allplay tennis challenge
Denise has come a long way from her working-class roots in the West Midlands.
She became a national treasure after winning gold in the heptathlon during the 2000 Sydney Olympics. And now, with the Royal Albert Hall beckoning, she has really developed a passion for a different sport.
“I just love it, she says. I come down to the club and there are ladies in their 60s right down to children playing.
“I’m determined my children will join a tennis club because it’s really nice to get involved in it. I can’t encourage people enough. But I might change my tune if I don’t win in December.”