Blind tennis players are having a ball at Highgate - and volunteers are needed
- Credit: Archant
Visually impaired tennis will not be on the Paralympic schedule in Rio but, if its popularity continues to increase at its current rate, it may not be too long before it is included.
The first international competition will be held in Loughborough in April – another landmark moment for a sport which has developed rapidly.
Highgate Cricket and Lawn Tennis Club, which is based at Shepherd’s Cot on Park Road in Crouch End, have been involved for the last five years.
After teaming up with Metro Blind Sport, they have provided volunteers for Wednesday sessions and for the organisation’s local and national tournaments.
Highgate also started regular soundball sessions of their own a few years ago, and they were awarded the 2013 Telegraph Community Grant to help with their blind tennis programme.
They have since developed their facilities – improving wheelchair access to the courts and clubhouse and making the venue safer for visually impaired players – while an Access to Sport grant has subsequently aided their ability to provide opportunities for people with various disabilities.
“Sport is fundamental to life,” said Highgate’s tennis chairwoman Jessica Bavinton, who has provided help as a volunteer to a programme which has been established and coordinated by Linda Almond. “It’s not just about being fit or strong, it’s about access to community, friendship and people.
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“Society actually does a pretty poor job at supporting people to integrate properly. If you’re sitting at home with an impairment, it’s not just the impairment that disables you. It’s the fact that we don’t provide good enough facilities, transport, infrastructure and opportunities to help people join in.
“At Highgate Tennis Club we don’t see any reason why someone can’t just turn up and participate, and we’ve found a way to do that.
“We’ve got a wheelchair player who’s playing in our ladders, and Paul [Ryb] is the national visually impaired champion. We’ve just welcomed him into our ladders, playing people who are sighted.
“We have to adapt our tennis courts and adapt the rules slightly, but actually we don’t see any reason why someone with their disability can’t just turn up and play tennis in the same way.”
There are five categories of visually impaired tennis players, ranking from B1 participants, who are totally blind, to better-sighted B5 competitors.
Those in the B1 class play within the service courts and raised tape is laid so that they can feel the edges of the area with their feet.
A larger, lighter ball containing bells is used so they can hear it coming, and it is allowed to bounce up to three times depending on their vision category. B3 players such as Ryb use three-quarters of the court and the ball can bounce twice.
“It takes a bit of thinking about, a bit of planning, but actually there’s no reason why someone can’t come and say ‘you know what, I’m visually impaired but I want to join in’,” said Bavinton.
“What we’re showing hopefully is that that’s entirely possible, just with simple adaptations that you can make; the type of ball, the size of the court and the rackets. That’s what enables me to play with Paul (who lives in Bloomfield Road in Highgate).
“I used to play county tennis and I’m a first-team player, and we’re on quite an even footing. Paul has just beaten me 9-7 in an adapted ladder match.
“The important thing for us is that anyone who is visually impaired or disabled out there knows that they are welcome at our club, and that we’ll do all we can to facilitate participation.”
While tennis can be adapted to involve people with various disabilities, the sport is still virtually impossible for blind players without the help of dedicated volunteers – and they are not always easy to find.
“I think it’s one of our biggest challenges because to make it work properly really we need one volunteer per person,” said Bavinton.
“You can imagine with people who are more visually impaired, they will need your elbow every time they move across the court, potentially, and they will need you to physically hand them a ball.
“Paul is less impaired than that and can do some of those things himself, but we often need someone in the background to pick up tennis balls, and someone else behind the scenes organising things, so it’s quite volunteer-intensive.
“It’s not straightforward finding volunteers, which is such a shame because it’s an incredibly inspiring environment to be in.
“Here you are with people who are literally turning their lives upside down to travel sometimes across the country to come to a competition.
“They might be heading out with their guide dog early in the morning, struggling with three or four levels of public transport just to get here, so these are really people who are living life to the full.
“It just shows people what’s possible. I’m a physiotherapist by background and I got involved in this because I just couldn’t imagine how someone could even stay upright, let alone actually hit a ball into the court.
“I find it absolutely inspiring just to be around it and the sessions themselves are great fun and full of laughter, so we’d love to get some more volunteers. It’s a great opportunity for teenagers who need volunteering experience for Duke of Edinburgh and things like that.”
Anyone who would like more information on playing or volunteering with Highgate’s blind tennis sessions should email email@example.com. Visit http://www.metroblindsport.org/ for more information about what Metro Blind Sport can offer.