The power of tennis

Written by Melissa Robertson, Chief Executive Officer at Now.

This Monday was the best start to a working week that I’ve had in as long as I can remember. It started at 10.30am on Court Number 1 (inside) of the National Tennis Centre in Roehampton. We were told to be in sports kit (much to the delight of my younger colleagues, who were incredulous that I ‘didn’t even have a pair of leggings’ at home, never mind tracksuit bottoms – but a panic sprint to Sports Direct sorted that sharpish), and be ready for a run around. It was going to be quite a day, because we were going to experience 3 different forms of disability tennis – Deaf, Visually Impaired and Wheelchair.

Tennis is a much misunderstood and unnecessarily maligned sport. Largely famous for just 2 weeks of the year, it’s often considered irrelevant or inaccessible to ‘normal’ people (let alone disabled people). Yet, according to world-renowned scientists from a spectrum of disciplines, tennis is one of the best sports you can play. It’s good for physical health – aerobic fitness, anaerobic fitness, leg strength, body coordination, motor control, agility, balance, flexibility; and for mental health – strategy, problem solving, teamwork, competition, discipline, mistake management.

The Tennis Foundation exists to transform lives outside of tennis by using the resilience and confidence that tennis can give them. They offer resources, training and adaptations of the game for people from all walks of life, from schools right through to urban communities and disabled people.

We were taken on a tour of the impressive facilities by Jill Osleger, the National Disability Development Manager. And then it was time to hit the court. So, there we are – Jill, our new Creative Partner Remco, and Account Director Sam – ready to go, in a sports kit of sorts, feeling slightly nervous and excited.

First we were introduced to National Deaf Coach, Cathy Fletcher. She’s been part of the Great Britain Deaf Squad since 1996, and was the National singles champion 7 times between 2003 and 2012, doubles champion 7 times, and mixed champion 4 times. We did a warm up that involved responding to coloured cones to move around, jog on the spot and stop. When training, and playing in tournaments, players remove any hearing aids. So, we put on ear defenders to experience what it’s like to play deaf tennis. Weirdly I felt more focused – in the silence all your concentration goes into watching and anticipating. I felt hypersensitive, and really oblivious to everything else going on around us.

Catherine Fletcher – National Tennis Championships for the Deaf 2013

Next up was Sam Perks, Disability Development Coordinator. His job was to help us experience Visually Impaired and Blind Tennis. For this, we used a range of different glasses to explore varying levels of visual impairment, and an audible ball (essentially a slightly larger tennis ball with a ping pong ball with ball bearings inside). With the partially impaired glasses, it’s possible to be able to just about hit a ball. With opaque glasses, it was impossible. Remco seemed to have a knack of getting the ball to bounce just in front of my feet, which meant that I swung late every time. It was a humbling experience, and my other senses really failed me. But VI tennis is gathering pace in the UK – there is already a National Tournament, and a lobby to get it recognised as a sport for the Paralympics.

Finally, Geraint Richards, Head of Disability Player Performance, gave us a wheelchair tennis experience. The first challenge is be able to manoeuvre the chair (well, actually the first challenge is to strap yourself into the chair). These specially adapted chairs are really nifty. And before long we were able to not just go forwards, but navigate around a cone course, and (just about) go backwards too. The next trick is to be able to do all of these things whilst also holding a tennis racket. With wheelchair tennis, the ball can bounce twice. You would imagine this would make it easier to get to the ball. But you are navigating a wheelchair, whilst holding a tennis racket, whilst trying to judge which direction the ball might go in and if you’ll have to do forehand or backhand. You don’t have the strength of your legs to give extra welly to your hits, so you give your stomach muscles a real workout. And you’re lower down, so getting it over the net is more of a challenge. It was thrilling, hilarious, good fun, and exhausting. And we were all so competitive (the girls won – just saying).

Jordanne Whiley, Britain’s youngest ever National women’s singles champion – Nottingham Indoor Tennis Tournament 2015

The sense of achievement, of camaraderie, of competition, of both physical and mental agility was palpable. We were practically bear-hugging each other in our over-excitement. It was an extraordinarily fulfilling experience. Now it’s our job to get everyone else to try it.