IT WAS on a Saturday morning in August four years ago that newlywed Nicole Wickett set off on a drive to see her parents.
She had finished preparing breakfast for husband James and a friend when she left home in Beaford for Westward Ho!
But she never made it to her destination.
Five minutes into her journey, on a narrow country road, 23-year-old Nicole saw a van approaching in the opposite direction and braked to a stop close to the verge. The van, though, struck her front driver's side, inflating the airbags and trapping Nicole inside.
"The doors on the driver's side, front and rear, were caved in, so they would not open," said James. "And the front passenger door was wedged against a tree."
Unable to open the windows, Nicole was in a state of panic. "The airbags had gone off, the car was filled with smoke, and she thought it was on fire," said James.
She managed, however, to clamber into the back and force open the nearside door just wide enough to escape.
But her husband's BMW was written off. So, it seemed for the next three years, was Nicole's career in tennis. Suffering neck, shoulder and back damage, her injuries did not seem too bad at first. The paramedics at the scene advised her to go home, rest and take painkillers.
"I was stiff through the day and the following day, but it got to the Monday and I could not support my head, so I went to my doctor who referred me for physio," said Nicole.
And so began a long, slow fight to overcome the effects of her crash, one which continues to this day.
She can no longer work as a tennis coach or sports teacher, her line of work before the accident, and each day is a process of pain management.
"She has permanent injury to the nerves in her neck, shoulder and spine, which means she is constantly in pain," said James.
Hardly a day went by when Nicole did not think of tennis. A regular member of the Westward Ho! North Devon League title-winning teams for many years up to 2009, and the most powerful female hitter in the club, she longed to get back.
Try as she did, though, each time there were tears.
First was the attempt to get back to coaching. Nicole had part-time roles at Shebbear College and the Torridge School of Tennis, Westward Ho!, where she had played the game since the age of 10.
It was there she had met James when he went to her for coaching. They had married only three weeks before the accident and were delaying their honeymoon until the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Canada, six months later.
Instead of fun in the snow and ice, the months ahead were all pain and frustration. Yet still Nicole endeavoured to coach.
"Like a normal injury, I thought it would be just a few weeks before I would get over it," she said.
"I went back to coaching to help out where I could before I was able to play. I could not hit the balls, I would just do the feeding."
Finally, 18 months later, she braved a game of doubles.
"It was a disaster," said James. "It ended in tears within half an hour and we had to abandon. She was in excruciating pain and you think you are never going to get back."
Except that, to Nicole, never is a word to be volleyed away. So, still on a daily cocktail of painkillers, she turned up at the Westward Ho! club in April and presented herself for squad practice.
To the amazement of others she not only proved herself worthy of selection for the first match of the season, she was picked for the A team against the B team.
Nothing much had changed with her physical state, it was just she was stubbornly determined to play.
There were fears of course. "Will I let everyone down?" she wondered. "Will I be able to play to the end of the match?"
Partnering Lottie Koval, the pair won both their matches and now, four months on, the stats are striking.
They tell us Nicole has made more appearances than all but two of the eight players who have turned out for the A team in the North Devon League's top division.
Even though she suffers headaches almost every day, she has played a full part in a team who, with one round to go, remain in contention for the title.
Most recently she was selected to play against Barnstaple Tarka A in the league's ladies' Knockout Cup final. As usual, her preparations involved doing little other than popping pills.
"For each match I cannot do much during the build-up," said Nicole. "It means not doing any exercise and not doing much around the house. I cannot even push the trolley around the whole supermarket because I get a build-up of pain that would take a day to get over."
James has cut back his hours as a solicitor to help run the home and take care of their three-year-old.
"I willingly take on the household chores so Nicole can play tennis and get some of her old life back," he said.
Nicole was speaking shortly before going on court with Lottie to face the Sloman sisters, Tia and Jemma. Now 27, Nicole was on court with three teenagers who were full of zest and running.
Nicole and Lottie won the first set on a tie-break but at a cost. A searing pain in her shoulder while serving, filtering through to a numbness in her racket hand, inhibited Nicole for the rest of the match and they lost 6-7, 6-1, 10-6. If a deciding set is required in the best of three format, it is played as a championship tie-break.
However, a final of epic proportions was in the making.
On an adjacent court, Westward Ho!'s Karen Morris and Sally Langford defeated Lydia Huxtable and Bish Muir 6-2, 6-3. It meant that at halfway the teams were 1-1 on points with Ho! leading 3-2 in sets.
"There is no way I am quitting now," said Nicole during the 10-minute break between matches.
Aching and with her game deteriorating, Nicole went into her second match but she and Lottie were easy fodder for Lydia and Bish. The Tarka pair won 6-4, 6-1.
Now Karen and Sally would have to beat the Sloman sisters to level the match at 2-2.
Westward Ho! took the first set 6-2 but Tarka won the second 6-4.
In the championship tie-break, first the Slomans took a 3-0 lead, then it was 4-4, 9-7 to the Slomans, then 9-9, 10-10 and finally 12-10 to Westward Ho!
So it was 2-2 in matches and 5-5 in sets. On the sidelines, Andy Koval, the Tarka men's team captain, had to add up the games. Checked and double-checked, he announced Tarka had the edge, 38-36.
Especially satisfying for Tarka was that their victory came in the absence of injured captain Hannah Miller and the unavailable Georgia Smith.
Watching Nicole play was Westward Ho! stalwart Sue Doncaster who said: "She has come back to a much higher standard and much more quickly than I anticipated last year knowing how she was suffering.
"I was amazed when she turned up to ladies' practice at the beginning of the season and was able to play. Last year if she played a set she would be struggling."
The Knockout Cup may have slipped through Nicole's hands but there is always the league.
Tarka have the edge going into the final round of fixtures but the slightest slip could hand the trophy to Westward Ho!
Whether Nicole's painful neck and shoulder would allow her the range of movement to lift the league trophy may be another matter. Pass her the painkillers and watch her try.