Jordanne Whiley: Elite Wheelchair Tennis Player
You’d think that clinching your sixth Grand Slam title would earn you a well-deserved week off.
But if your name is Jordanne Whiley, the idea of any time away from tennis – especially with only 364 days to go until the Paralympics – is not even a consideration. In fact, only two days after retaining her wheelchair doubles title at Wimbledon, Whiley competed in the Super Singles tournament in Nottingham, securing her first solo title and, with it, another positive result on the road to Rio.
“If I’m not training, or competing, I feel terrible. I love tennis and want to do everything I can to have two golds hanging around my neck in a year’s time.”
Ambition, and the will to win, are qualities Whiley has in abundance, and she admits that she has a very “passionate” personality – that she never does anything by halves. It is this, perhaps, that sets elite athletes apart: the ability to fixate on one goal and sacrifice everything in the pursuit of achieving it. Indeed, whilst most 23 year olds spend their money and mental real estate planning their social calendar, Whiley is very matter-of-fact in admitting that she doesn’t really have time for friends. She has a wonderful support network – including her boyfriend, Marc McCarroll, a fellow wheelchair tennis player – but accepts that friendships are something that will have to wait until later in life. “It’s just a requirement of the job, really”, she mutters.
One relationship she has formed on the tour, however, is with Yui Kamiji, her Japanese doubles partner with whom she has lifted no less than eight professional titles, including the calendar Grand Slam in 2014. Now ranked as the number one doubles pairing in the world, their strength on court is reflected off it, with Whiley counting Kamiji as her best friend – this, no doubt, playing a large part in their successes to date.
“I love playing doubles with Yui, not only because we win, but also because it’s no effort. We’re the perfect match.”
Currently in New York, hoping to defend their US Open title, it’s credit to them both that they have found so much success together – particularly when you consider that only a year ago, Kamiji didn’t speak a word of English and they communicated using sign language. In fact, their partnership was born when Whiley uttered the question “Wimbledon?” to her Japanese counterpart, a woman she now calls her “bag for life” given the calming nature Kamiji has on her. (By contrast, she describes herself as the “paper bag” partner – the one more likely to cave under pressure).
As Whiley watches over some simmering pasta – carb-loading clearly not a cliché – I wonder how she feels about the introduction of a singles tournament at Wimbledon next year, when she and Kamiji will be able to play against each other, as well as together. Whilst continuing to dominate the doubles tour is important, she admits that winning a singles Slam is her next aim, although she isn’t sure if Wimbledon will be her best shot at this as grass is such a difficult surface to play on in a wheelchair. Still, she is excited about the prospect and thinks it’s a good thing for her sport, hoping it might increase interest, coverage, and – importantly for the athletes – sponsorship.
It’s a good point. I’m sat opposite a woman who is, arguably, the most successful tennis player in Britain at the moment, and yet the majority of the public do not know who she is. Moreover, she reveals that lots of the juniors and lower ranked players receive more sponsorship than she does – players who will never break into the top 100, let alone win countless Grand Slam titles.
“If you’re going to support people who won’t make it, why not support a Paralympic athlete who has? I’m not a divvy in a wheelchair who plays a bit of sport – I’m a professional who trains as hard as the likes of Andy Murray and Heather Watson!”
It’s something of a Catch 22, Whiley feels. Without more television coverage, sponsors aren’t interested, but TV channels remain reluctant to give air time to something people don’t know. There was a bit of a breakthrough during London 2012 – in which Whiley won a bronze medal to equal the achievements of her dad on the track in Los Angeles 1984 – when Channel 4 broadcast over 500 hours of coverage during the Paralympics. But twelve days of interest every four years is not enough to sustain international athletes like Whiley, who spend around half the year away from home. To put the financial situation she faces into perspective, the Wimbledon prize money for wheelchair doubles currently stands at £7000 per player, yet expenditure to play at a tournament like the Australian Open is around £6000. You do the maths.
It would be wrong to say Whiley is bitter about this, but she is clearly frustrated. She’s not asking for the same prize money or funding as the likes of Djokovic and Federer, but she would like a bit more recognition. She finds it galling that there are sportsmen earning £125,000 a week for kicking around a ball when they are no more dedicated or passionate than other full-time athletes. In fact, it is seeing how too much money makes some people– including a certain tennis player on the women’s tour – think they’re better than others that she has learned what she cites as a major life lesson, namely not to become “too big for my boots”. What does ten seconds to smile at someone or sign an autograph cost, she exclaims.
I suspect there is little likelihood of Whiley becoming a diva anytime soon. For a start, she spends her weekends volunteering with Age UK, keeping elderly people company on her ‘rest’ days. She is also an ambassador for Cure International, a charity working to transform the lives of children with physical disabilities in the developing world. Closer to home, she helps run tennis camps for young players – something she’s keen to become more involved in when she calls time on her own competitive career.
For now, her head might be firmly focused in one direction – Brazil – but this homegrown girl from Halesowen also has it rooted in reality.
“I’m not going to look up to someone unless I know they have got there in the right way. Even then, I want to see them being ‘real’. Perfection is impossible. What matters is being the best version of yourself.”
Indeed, Whiley has coined the phrase “flawed role model”, and hopes that she can inspire young girls to understand that success does not present itself in a one-size-fits-all package. Society might have us believe that bigger is better, but Whiley wants women to understand that they can be the greatest lawyer/doctor/teacher/mother/insert appropriate status, regardless of whether they have one leg, no arms, a big nose. Ditto the idea of ‘beauty’, which she certainly thinks should be in the eye of the beholder and not the Photoshop expertise of editor’s the world over. (“How is Kim Kardashian an icon?”, she proclaims, and I wholeheartedly concur.)
As we say farewell in front of a beautiful panoramic portrait of London, I spy that the majority of the pasta she cooked earlier remains in a bowl, uneaten. “Not hungry?”, I jibe. “Oh no, I always end up throwing pasta away”, Whiley retorts. “It’s impossible to judge!”
As she said, no-one – not even a Wimbledon champion – is perfect.
30 Second CV
Name: Jordanne Whiley
Current Title/Company: Elite wheelchair tennis player
Titles Won to Date: Six Grand Slams, a Paralympic bronze medal, and my first major singles title this year are my highest profile titles. I have won numerous other competitions.
Tea or coffee: Tough one… coffee
Wine or cocktails: Cocktails
Morning or night: Night
Favorite book: A Fairy Tale Reversed (trilogy) by Ileana Coca
Favorite singer: Celine Dion
I wish I knew how to____? Run!
Best advice you’ve ever received: Always be honest to yourself and others
Woman you’d most like to have lunch with and what you’d order: The Duchess of Cambridge. I would order parsnip soup, duck with an orange jus, followed by lemon meringue pie.
Images courtesy of: Tennis Foundation