THROW BACK! Makere Gibbons (née Bradnam) featured in ISSUE 5 of UNO Capital back in winter 2008. Read our cover story in issue 40 to find out what she’s doing now.

Makere Gibbons

Former champion tennis player Makere Bradnam from Titahi Bay is standing at a crossroads of possibilities. UNO spoke to her, curious about the direction she’ll take.

THE SIX-YEAR-OLD picked up her pink plastic toy tennis racquet and waved it around at the tennis club where her grandma had taken her. She hit a few balls. Whether she felt at ease with the racquet and lobbed a few scorchers to the end of the court is lost to time, but two years later the girl was holding a real racquet with confidence and playing in a real school tournament. Her name was Makere Bradnam, and she’d had no coaching or training of any kind. Her opponent, aged 10, had. But the game went in Makere’s favour and she won. Her prize was to leave the court and step onto a road to potential international tennis stardom.

Makere Bradnam Gibbons

“I played really well and from then on I started to get coaching, and it just grew and grew and grew after a lot of hard work into full-time,” says Makere, now 21. According to Makere, the tennis thing “just happened”; she picked up a racquet, and she played, end of story. Well, not quite. Coming from a sporting family it’s perhaps not surprising that the kid from Titahi Bay displayed natural talent. “Grandma was a New Zealand rep in softball and netball, Mum was in the New Zealand basketball team along with my Auntie and played at Olympic level, and Dad was a New Zealand touch representative,” she says, presenting a verbal sideboard of family trophies. Her 17-year-old sister, formerly in the New Zealand tennis team, is currently playing in Australia. “Oh yes, a very sporting family!” she smiles.

Tennis was to become the focus of Makere’s sport – if not her life – from Titahi Bay Primary to secondary school at St Mary’s College, and beyond. Austrian tennis coach Gebhard Gritsch discovered her at the age of 15, and from then she trained full-time and joined the international junior circuit (for 18 years and under). She left high school when the demands of international travel made conventional education untenable. From there on her schooling was by correspondence.

“When I started to train at five in the morning, that’s when I knew, ‘OK, this is serious’.” She reels off the daily routine: “Tennis five am till 8.30am. Go to school. Come back. 3.30pm until 7.30pm, tennis. And then Saturday mornings, inter-club. Sunday was my day off.” The improvements were tangible, and she says her club – Wellington Tennis – supported her hugely. “For a moment I was the ‘rising star’,” she shyly recalls, lifting two fingers either side of her head to put the term in speech marks.

Still only a teenager, she embarked on a life of international travel as she played in tournaments around the world. The itinerary for the 15/16-year-old was mind-exotic. “My first trip was to South America where I won a junior international title, and my next trip was to Asia, then my next trip was to Europe for a few months, and then I did a few trips back and forth to Fiji, for the Oceania Championships.”

But reaching the top in any sport as a teenager has its price. Makere found that leading a ‘normal’ life wasn’t easy, and the regime her coach instigated along with the travel were punishing. “That’s when I realised what it was going to take. I mean, all my friends [spent] the weekends hanging out, going out, but I was never really able to because, ‘I can’t, I’ve got tennis tomorrow’… “It was really, really hard. I kind of lost my friends … my true friends were always there for me, a couple of them … and my parents tried to get me into the normal life, you know, ‘go and hang out with your friends for a day’. It can be done, but it is really hard especially when you’re travelling; it’s just you and your coach. That’s when you know whether it’s what you want or not.”

It’s not what she wants. Even after playing centre court in Germany at the age of 16 in a lead-up series to Wimbledon, and high-profile ASB centre court tournaments at Wellington’s Renouf Centre, Makere Bradnam found that tennis wasn’t the way of the future for her. It wasn’t just that the demands were intense; in the end her vision of becoming an international tennis pro was clouded, literally. “I stopped playing when I was about 17 or 18. I went to the doctor, because I’m kind of blind in one eye. I knew there was always something funny [from] when I was born, but then my Mum got me tested and I’m actually blind in that eye,” she says, pointing, “So it’s kind of hard to believe
I did so well over the years.”

Makere Bradnam Gibbons

The understatement of the year; to have achieved what she did with impaired vision is nothing short of astonishing. Unfortunately, she says there’s no treatment. “It’s just something that happened,” she says wistfully.

But Makere wasn’t without options. Already blessed as a superb tennis player, once she’d finished her schooling she trained full-time with Wellington Performing Arts and subsequently landed roles in musicals with the Wellington Musical Theatre. Her speciality area is dancing – “I’ve danced all my life since I was five” – but she has also featured in chorus line-ups.

Makere has appeared on stage in Grease – “A lot of fun, I love that show!”- Phantasmic (a medley) and Beauty and the Beast. She says she was “pestered” to audition for Cats.
“But I was just so busy and it’s such a big commitment. Cats is just a full-on show if you’re a dancer.” Makere may have spurned Cats, but not the catwalk. Adding to her portfolio of talents, she’s now also on the road to modelling and is signed up with Auckland’s Clyne Model Agency.

She’s also currently studying for a business degree at university, with two years to go. It’s a full life, but Makere hasn’t totally abandoned tennis; she still plays senior tennis for Wellington, and interclub for Thorndon, and was recently awarded Wellington Women’s regional top player of the year. Today Makere also coaches at Thorndon, where she enjoys motivating kids who remind her of herself when she was starting out. “It’s a really, really cool feeling to be able to coach kids; they’re just so keen … I can really relate to them.” Oh, and she’s also part of the Hurricanes’ cheerleading team. So: coaching? Modelling? Performing? Business? Makere Bradnam’s at a crossroads of opportunities. Not so much centre court as centre-caught. Does she know which road to take? Yes. Any of them. “What I really want to do is to open up my own business and do something I’m passionate about, whether it be modelling, something to do with sports, performing arts or dancing … I just love what I’m doing and hope that one day I can stick to one of them, but who knows I might be able to go all different ways.”

Follow Makere on Instagram.