Jordanne Whiley on wheelchair tennis, playing Novak Djokovic, and inspiring young players

Jordanne Whiley is one of our most successful tennis players. But she's not a household name – yet. She tells Nick Duerden why the wheelchair sport is finally going mainstream

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Indy Lifestyle Online

It is mid-afternoon in Uxbridge, at the westernmost end of London's Piccadilly line, and Jordanne Whiley, Britain's best female wheelchair tennis player by a country mile, is just back from the Roland Garros tournament in Paris. She and her Japanese-born doubles partner, Yui Kamiji, finished runners-up at the French Open, which represented their sixth Grand Slam final appearance in a row. They had won the previous five, so this loss was keenly felt.

"We were not on form and for that I am truly gutted," she tweeted shortly afterwards.

Never mind, I tell her now. Wimbledon looms, home turf. She smiles. "And I'm training hard for it," she says.

She may be one of our most decorated tennis players in history, but Whiley is not yet a household name. This might, however, be about to change. She is the subject of an award-winning short documentary – very short: barely five minutes – on her life and her achievements, called simply Jordanne, that is currently appearing at film festivals around the world. And her impressive winning streak, the Roland Garros blip notwithstanding, is garnering increasing press attention. About time, she says. The sport could do with a little limelight.

"It's become much more popular since the 2012 Paralympic Games, and it really is fantastic to watch," she insists. It is also at last demanding greater respect within sporting circles. "The prize money is rising every year, and we are even starting to be shown on TV, a little bit. We just want it to grow more now, much more."

Jordanne Whiley has used a wheelchair since the age of two. She was born, in Birmingham in 1992, with osteogenesis imperfecta, or brittle-bone disease, a tissue deformity in which the tissue fails to grow properly, which makes the bones weaker and more prone to breaking. Her father, Keith, had been born with the condition, and until recently those with the disease faced a 50 per cent chance of passing it on to their children. A recent medical breakthrough now enables doctors to remove the gene through in vitro fertilisation treatment. Whiley, who lives with her boyfriend, Marc McCarroll, also a wheelchair tennis player, says this is "the most amazing news. It means any child I may have won't have to go through what I did. That is an incredible relief."

For the first dozen years of her life, Jordanne broke her legs a total of 26 times. Not one of those times was due to carelessness.

"Oh, it didn't take much," she says. "Any sudden movement, really, could do it; a sneeze, even. The first time it happened was when I was very young, a baby. My dad was burping me, and broke my femur."

She was in and out of hospital a lot; her legs carry the scars today. As a result of so many operations, she found it hard to foster what passes for a healthy child's life. Consequently, school was hell. She had to navigate her first day at her secondary school with both legs in plaster. "I'd just had major surgery on them, and there was a lot of physiotherapy after. That's probably why I always found it difficult to make friends. I was never invited on playdates or to birthday parties." Thankfully, she hasn't broken a bone since she was 12.

She needed a hobby, and didn't have to look far for one. Her father, who won a bronze medal in wheelchair tennis at the Paralympic Games in 1984, turned her on to the sport from a young age. "He liked to insist that I was a natural, but I was convinced he only said that because I was his daughter," she says. "But it did become fairly obvious fairly quickly that I had some sort of talent in it."

By 14, she had won the national championship. The success went to her head, and so her other childhood ambition – to become a forensic scientist – was quickly scotched. By 16, she was the junior world No 1; she won bronze at London 2012. Her sights are now set on the Rio Open.

"I found I was very competitive," she says, laughing. Clearly, for she had also tried out for other wheelchair-bound sports, including basketball and racing. "I was good at basketball but I simply wasn't a team player, and I showed a lot of potential in wheelchair racing but decided it was boring. So tennis received all my attention."

Now 23, she is the only British person to have won all four Grand Slam titles, and is currently ranked No 6 in the world in singles, and No 2 in doubles. Wheelchair tennis is a compelling game to watch, the chair at once so cumbersome to the task at hand, but also unerringly fluid. Presumably, I ask her, it's terribly difficult to play?

She laughs. "Well, if you put Novak Djokovic in a chair and had him face me on the court, I'd probably win. It is very difficult to get the chair moving, yes, but then I've been doing it all my life. It's second nature, an extension of me. But it definitely does take a lot of practice."

If she is currently enjoying the kudos from being so bright a talent, she isn't yet enjoying the spoils. Wheelchair tennis still remains somewhere in the margins, and sponsorship is hard to come by. This means that she often has to dip into her own pocket to sustain herself while playing tournaments abroad. And while the prize money may be rising, it's still fairly paltry.

"If Andy Murray wins Wimbledon," she points out, "he'll get about £1m. If I win, I'll make about six or seven thousand."

But Whiley wants more out of wheelchair tennis than to make money.

"If I can inspire people, that would make me so proud. A lot of young people look up to the likes of Beyoncé or Paris Hilton, and just want to be skinny and look good. But there are all sorts of people you can look up to in life." Such as, perhaps, Whiley herself. "You know, someone who isn't quite perfect, in a wheelchair, but playing sports, and is healthy without looking like a stick. I'd hope people might find that a little bit inspiring," she says.

Pulse Films' documentary 'Jordanne', directed by Zak Razvi, is available to view on vimeo.com/109475544

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