Tennis: Passion provides path to scaling the barriers

The untold stories in a year of buried treasure: JASON WARD
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The Independent Online
With two British tennis players ranked in the top 10 for the first time, there was little chance that the name of Jason Ward would gatecrash the headlines.

Ward rose from No 84 to be ranked 30 in the world at the end of the year, qualified to play for Great Britain in the World Team Cup in Barcelona and, in his first full year as a professional, did more than enough to suggest that a top 10 placing is within his considerable grasp. "I don't think I can be a Sampras ever," Ward said. "The best I can hope for is a Jimmy Connors." Facially, in the bleached hair, and also in the indomitable spirit, he resembles another world No 1, Thomas Muster.

Two achievements characterised his progress through the year: the first was taking a game off the best player in the world, the second was a victory over Michael Pruitt in the quarter-final of a tournament in San Diego, his first success over a player ranked inside the world's top 20. The manner of the win was as important as the ranking points and confidence which went with it. A set down and facing a dispiriting defeat, Ward switched to all-out attack.

"I was playing well, but he was just hitting winner after winner," Ward recalled. "So I thought, `I've got to go for it.' I did, I just hit everything and it came off." Ward won 3-6 6-4 6-2 and celebrated by ringing his long-suffering coach, Graeme Livingstone, at 3am London time. "It was so huge because I'd lost so many matches to guys in the top 20. That felt like a huge mental barrier." It was not the first in his life, mental or physical.

Ward lost the use of his legs in 1991, a few days before his 21st birthday. He had a fall and broke his back. He does not elaborate because pity is not an emotion he encourages either in himself or from others. Life and tennis are tackled head-on. A new ruling has enabled disabled players to compete in able-bodied club tournaments. They are allowed two bounces. Ward competes in Division C of his local league in Kent and is not surprised that he holds his own. Rather the opposite, in fact.

"A lot of people think they ought to slow it down for me. My reaction now is to drill the ball back past them. I should beat anyone who can't put the ball exactly where they want to, which most people can't. I am a professional tennis player. I do drills when we're hitting into a two- foot square box in the back court. Ask a club player to do that and he'll be lucky to get one in 10." The pity, he says, sometimes flows in reverse.

Yet only half the battle involves hitting tennis balls while using wheels for legs. Until August 1997, Ward was just another promising player searching for sponsorship. Whether it was his brief career as an actor - six episodes of Dangerfield and one of Casualty are among his credits - or his refusal to beg, roughly the 2,000th letter found its mark. Blue Print, a Kent- based importer of car parts, decided to back Ward's ambitious claims with hard cash. Ward went into the meeting with the company as a well- meaning amateur and emerged an hour or so later as Britain's first wheelchair tennis pro.

"The managing director listened to our spiel and then just asked what we needed in an ideal world," Ward said. "We said four hours a day, six days a week, 25 tournaments a year. He went away and, a few moments later, came back and said, `We're going to pay for your travel, all your coaching and we're going to give you a car. Go and pick a car, up to pounds 15,000.'"

Livingstone and Ward drove away and didn't speak for five minutes. Then they screamed out of the window. Livingstone, a quiet spoken Scot who has learned to play in a wheelchair, is one of the few specialist coaches in the country. He is now paid pounds 19.50 an hour as Ward's personal coach, but hardly does it for the money. "I didn't know anything about wheelchair tennis before I met Jason. We've both learned, but he's helped me more than I've helped him." They end each session with a match, Livingstone in his chair too. "If he's below par, it can be close," he said. "If he plays really well, he kills me."

It took Ward, a footballer and cricketer before his accident, four years to learn how to manoeuvre and hit the ball properly, one day to realise he that he wanted to play the sport full time. He is a self- confessed firebrand on and off court, and tennis has provided a more constructive outlet for his anger. Neither umpires nor passers-by, anxious to help, get their heads bitten off quite so readily these days. His last code violation was in January.

"If you channel my aggression the right way, it's brilliant. If you take that a notch up, you get a code violation. It's the same in life. I still get angry because you get such a stupid reaction off some people. You can walk to the sink, I have to push my chair. But why should you talk to me any different? But I can't go round with a bee in my bonnet about it, I'd go mental."

His sponsorship comes to an end with the Paralympics in October 2000. The loose definition of disability, which is a constant source of debate within the game, makes a medal unlikely; eight of the world's top 10 have the advantage of lower limb mobility. Ward barely cares. He has a passion and is living it four hours a day, six days a week.