In these difficult and challenging times, sport can provide some refreshing and much-needed tales of athletes overcoming adversity – but British tennis player Francesca Jones’ recent success is truly inspirational.
The 20-year-old from Bradford reached the main draw of a grand slam for the first time by defeating Lu Jia-jing in the final round of qualifying for the Australian Open.
This would be enough cause for celebration given the limited amount of achievements by British female tennis players over the past few years.
But Jones has defied the odds to earn her place in one of tennis’ major tournaments.
She was born with the congenital condition Ectrodactyly Ectodermal Dysplasia Syndrome that means she has eight fingers and seven toes.
Jones has thumbs but only three fingers on each hand and was told at the age of eight by doctors to forget the idea of pursuing a career in professional tennis.
But the Barcelona-based player won her third and final qualifier in Dubai by thrashing Lu 6-0 6-1 to earn her place on the sport’s main stage.
Jones was the only one of Britain’s five entrants to make it past the opening round of the qualifying events, which are being played in Dubai and Doha to limit the number of players travelling to Australia.
She went into the game ranked 241 in the women’s singles, with Lu ranked 41 places ahead of her and with significantly more experience.
— LTA (@the_LTA) January 13, 2021
The Brit admitted she had to overcome a finger injury and a “wee mental breakdown” to seize her place at the grand slam with a dominant display.
She said: “Before the first few days before my match, I was speaking to my coach and I was saying that my fingers had actually split from the cold in the UK and I couldn’t hold the racket too well on my forehand side.
“The forehand is my best shot so I had a wee mental breakdown before the match to be honest.
“It was a few days before the match and my fingers were still cut and I wasn’t sure how I’d be able to take advantage of my weapon.
“I think I was probably well prepared in terms of physically and mentally because I had a lot of time during pre-season and we worked really hard.
“I tried to trust the work that we did but I am quite a perfectionist so I do worry about the days that I didn’t hit the forehand exactly the way that I should have done or I wasn’t serving well.”
Super happy 💙
— #AusOpen (@AustralianOpen) January 13, 2021
The British number does not feel that her condition has held her back at all.
“I wouldn’t say I’ve ever reached a low point due to my syndrome. I stand by what I’ve said previously which is I try and use it as a positive and I see it as an advantage in many ways,” Jones said.
“I’ve definitely had to work a lot more on my physicality.
“Personally my challenge has been to put myself in a physical shape that prevents injuries.
“My feet work in a different way and that means I run differently, my balance goes through my feet and my toes in a different way.
“For sure, I’ve always had a small grip and a really light racket and I am hesitant to change that because it’s worked well so far.
“I guess in the gym I’ve spent a lot of time trying to gain strength to support my muscles that can maybe support the weaknesses that I may have.”
She added: “I’ve had experiences that many haven’t at my age, and I think that’s moulded me into the person I am today,’ she said.
“It will have had an impact on my mental strength and my mentality and mindset as a whole, but I am sure everyone goes through hardship and deals with adversity in their own way. Everyone’s story makes a person who they are.”
6⃣0⃣ points won
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9⃣0⃣ % 1st serve win percentage
— LTA (@the_LTA) January 13, 2021
Qualifying for the tournament will earn Jones a minimum of £55,000 in first round prize money but Jones hopes to make the most of her place in the tournament.
She would also love to prove, once again, how wrong the specialist who advised her against a career in tennis really was.
He said: “His comments played a massive part in my life decisions and career commitments to date. I’ve always wanted to make my parents proud more than anything.”