Annabel Croft, the former tennis star competing on Strictly ‘to find joy’ after husband’s death

Strictly Come Dancing is back for its 21st series.

Like every year, the hit reality series sees celebrities including comedians, actors, broadcasters and sporting stars face off against each other for a chance to win the prized Glitterball Tropy.

Former tennis champion Annabel Croft is looking for more than just ballroom dancing glory, though.

Having lost her husband of 30 years, investment banker and professional yachtsman Mel Coleman, to cancer earlier this year, Croft, 57, has said she is also hoping to “find some joy”.

She told the Evening Standard: “I think, what an amazing time to try and find some joy, and just to be thrown into something to take your mind off things,” she said.

Croft was born on 12 July 1966 in Farnborough, Kent, and has two siblings, an older brother, Simon, and younger sister, Louisa. “According to my mother, I was a very active child and used to exhaust all of my playmate friends because I had too much energy,” she told SheerLuxe.

She has previously talked about how her mother Susan used to play club-level tennis, calling the sport her “obsession”.

“If it wasn’t for her I wouldn’t have played tennis – I’ll always be grateful to her for that,” she said, revealing that she started playing tennis at the age of nine during a family holiday in Marbella.

Three years later, Croft won the tennis nationals as a rank outsider, as “letters from the Lawn Tennis Association started coming through the letterbox” inviting her to train at the Bisham Academy tennis centre.

She represented Great Britain at tournaments across Europe as well as the prestigious Wightman Cup between England and the US.

At the age of 15, Croft became the youngest player to compete at Wimbledon for 95 years.

Despite a promising career, and being ranked among the world’s top 25 players, Croft retired from professional tennis at the young age of 21. She said her decision was tied to a string of losses at major tournaments, and the loneliness she experienced on tour.

“I was really lonely and started thinking I’d chosen the wrong path,” she toldThe Scotsman. “I knew I wanted to get married and have kids. I had a vision of the future: still engaged in combat, because that’s exactly what it was, until I was 30-plus. I just blew up.”

Shortly after she retired, Croft was picked to replace Anneka Rice on Channel 4’s Treasure Hunt – kickstarting a career in television that would also, over time, heal her relationship with tennis.

While juggling presenter roles and reality series appearances, Croft also started working as a tennis reporter, commentator, and anchor for leading broadcasters including Sky Sports.

Today, she continues to lead the coverage of Wimbledon for the BBC and Radio 5 Live, while also covering the Australian and French Open for Eurosport as a tennis pundit.

Across her decades-long TV career, Croft has also appeared on BBC One’s award-winning documentary Famous, Rich and Homeless, in which she lived penniless on the streets of London for nine days “to improve understanding of those sleeping rough”.

“I’m afraid my own perception when I saw them sitting on the pavements was to give them them a wide berth,” she said. “It would have been: ‘Look at you begging for money when you’re young and you’ve got two arms and two legs. Why don’t you get up and work like the rest of us?’

“It never occurred to me that these people might not have parents, that they might have been abused in foster homes...”

Croft and Coleman met while filming a show about yacht racing (Getty Images)
Croft and Coleman met while filming a show about yacht racing (Getty Images)

Around the same time she was considering retiring from tennis, Croft met former Americas Cup and Admiral’s Cup yachstman Coleman while filming a BBC show about yacht racing, with Eamonn Holmes and Seventies music sensation, the late Peter Skellern.

“Mel, who had just got back from Australia after the Americas Cup, was one of the yachtsmen and that is how we met,” she added. Six years later, they got married.

Over the next three decades, Croft and Coleman welcomed three children together, two daughters Amber and Lily Rose, and a son, Charlie, who are all grown up.

They started a tennis academy in Croft’s name, and spent the Covid-19 lockdowns converting an old DPD van into a mobile home.

In May 2023, she announced Coleman had died after a short battle with stomach cancer, aged 60.

“My husband did love [Strictly], he absolutely loved it,” she revealed, ahead of the start of the series.

“He used to cry watching it. He used to call me over if I was cooking, and he was crying watching it. So, I hope he’s watching up there,” Croft added.