He endured cancer at the age of one, spending eight months in hospital while undergoing surgery and two gruelling rounds of chemotherapy. But Wimbledon wildcard Ryan Peniston, 26, continued to defy the odds after sailing through to the second round of the championships on his debut.
His mother, Penny, called him a “determined fighter”, saying he had “worked so hard” to achieve his dreams.
The 66-year-old hospital ward manager said: “When he was diagnosed with that malignant disease I was with him for eight months, staying in hospital. It was a terrible time, like what any other family with cancer is going through.
“The chemotherapy stunted his growth. For his age he was always smaller than any other peer group. He didn’t grow until his late teens. It was just a tough time.”
She credited his success to having “good family support”. His brothers – Sam, 31, a paediatric nurse, and Harry, 28, a junior doctor – work alongside their mother at Southend Hospital.
Peniston, from Great Wakering, Essex, was diagnosed with rhabdomyosarcoma, which forms in soft tissue. But he told reporters the disease had made him resilient, saying: “It made me definitely tougher as a player and a person I think. It’s a blessing in disguise really.”
Speaking after he defeated Switzerland’s Henri Laaksonen in straight sets on Tuesday, he told how having cancer as a baby had had a “huge impact” on him personally and on his career.
“It definitely affected my growth,” he said. “I was a really late bloomer. I didn’t start growing until 15, 16. I was always about a foot smaller than all my peers. They all were growing and getting bigger serves and everything. I was struggling just trying to run around and get the balls.
“It’s such a terrible thing to go through, especially for my family, my close friends. But … it gives me so much strength. I’ve had some really, really nice messages from some foundations and people as well, like families that have gone through similar stuff. It’s really special to receive those kind of messages. It puts everything into perspective really.”
His father, Paul, a former train driver, said he started playing tennis before his sons were born. He told how he only discovered that Peniston had picked up the sport, aged three, after a neighbour made a complaint about his sons throwing apples over the garden fence.
The 66-year-old recalled: “So I opened the back door and all three boys had pinched my old rackets. We used to have an apple tree in the garden and they were smacking them over with the rackets. I looked and Ryan, who was the youngest, and went actually Ryan, do that again’ and I thought ‘that’s decent, that’s pretty good’. So after that we started playing. Then it just went on and on.”
Peniston will be joined in the second round by nine British players this year – the most since 1997. Heather Watson, who broke down in tears after defeating Germany’s Tamara Korpatsch, has progressed to the next stage, along with Jack Draper, who beat Belgian Zizou Bergs; Katie Boulter, who beat France’s Clara Burel; Liam Broady, who got the better of Lukas Klein after five sets; and wildcard Alastair Gray, who pulled off a remarkable win against former Wimbledon boys’ singles champion Tseng Chun-hsin.