Australian Open qualifying: Britain’s Francesca Jones on proving doubters wrong

2 weeks ago
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Francesca Jones

Francesca Jones has lost count of the number of times she has been wheeled in for surgery and the number of times she has been told a professional tennis career is out of the question.

Born with three fingers and a thumb on each hand, three toes on her right foot and four toes on her left, the 20-year-old is now preparing for her first overseas Grand Slam qualifying draw.

It is reward for reaching a career-high ranking of 241, and perhaps for refusing to dwell on the downsides of her congenital condition.

In fact, it is something she considers an “advantage”.

“The way I see it is that I am just playing the game with a different set of cards,” Jones tells BBC Sport from a hotel room in Dubai where she is quarantining for the relocated Australian Open qualifying, which starts for the women on Sunday.

“But it doesn’t mean those cards still can’t win the game.”

Ectrodactyly ectodermal dysplasia syndrome is a rare genetic condition which often affects the fingers and toes, often requiring adaptive surgery.

Fuelled by the scepticism of one particular medical specialist, Jones was accepted into the famed Sanchez Casal Academy in Barcelona at the age of just 10.

“When someone does say to you at eight, nine years old that you can’t do something, I suppose most people would be heartbroken, but I just tried to take it on the chin and see how I could prove that person wrong,” she says.

“And also prove to myself that I could do what I wanted to, and encourage others to do so too, because I think there are so many children that are limited by what others say.”

Jones plays with a light racquet and very small grip, and in the gym works hard on balance and technique. Her feet do not always move the way other feet do, so she has to be precise to avoid injury, which appeals to her perfectionist instincts.

Her biggest strength is her mental strength, she says.

“I’ve had experiences that many people my age won’t yet have had, and may never have,” says Jones.

“A lot of people would say it’s a disadvantage, whereas I would beg to differ: I always feel like it’s an advantage.

“I feel it puts me a step ahead of them in many ways and I’ve learned to be independent and it’s taught me a lot about myself and about life.

“I have things that I have to work on maybe a little bit more physically than other players, but I’m OK with that. I was very aware what I was stepping into, and I enjoy a challenge.

“I think people might have tried to [bully me], but I have quite a big personality, and I just kind of shrug it off, really. If they want to be derogatory in any way, that’s fine. That’s their issue, not mine.”

Jones, who is from Leeds, owes her spot in the qualifying event for the opening Grand Slam of the year to an excellent run following last year’s five-month suspension of the tours.

She is still based in Barcelona, but also trains at the National Tennis Centre in Roehampton as part of the support offered by the Lawn Tennis Association’s Pro Scholarship Programme.

And perhaps she was in the right place when Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the initial UK lockdown last March.

“The last day of normal life, I was the last person to leave the National Tennis Centre,” she says.

“So I gave the head of strength and conditioning a call, and asked him if I could nick some weights from the gym.

“I would just go every day to my little garage gym which I set up with my dad. I wanted to approach the lockdown with a different mentality, because I feel like you could have gone into it already defeated.”

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