Fran Jones was born with only 15 of 20 digits but has improved her ranking by more than 100 places over the past year, reaching a latest career high of No 241.
Credit: GETTY IMAGES
On Saturday, the Australian Open’s qualifying event began in the Middle-East. Five British players entered, but only one remains: Fran Jones, a 20-year-old whose feats are all the more remarkable when you consider that she was born with 15 digits rather than the usual 20.
Jones plays her third and final qualifying match on Wednesday in Dubai against a much more experienced campaigner: 31-year-old Jia-Jing Lu of China. If she wins, she will earn the right to compete at a major for the first time. Even if she were to lose, her two completed wins over Monica Niculescu and Jana Fett – both former top-100 players – would still make this a career-best week.
An unusually driven young player, Jones has improved her ranking by more than 100 places in the past year, reaching a latest career high of No 241.
This would be worth applauding in any rising British star. But it is a particularly exceptional feat for someone with Ectrodactyly Ectodermal Dysplasia – a condition so rare that only a few thousand people worldwide are thought to suffer from it. As a result, Jones is missing one finger on each hand. Her balance is also affected by having only seven toes.
Growing up in Leeds, Jones spent much of her childhood in hospital, undergoing so many different operations that she lost count. Much of the work related to a cleft palate and other dental problems. But despite being a self-confessed “chubby kid”, she remained a sports enthusiast, with a particular passion for Manchester United. And when one of her doctors suggested that a professional tennis career would be an impossibility, she reacted defiantly.
“I wouldn’t like to mention his [the doctor’s] name but I was about eight years old,” Jones recalled on Tuesday, after her hard-earned 7-6, 2-6, 6-1 win over Fett.
“I was never really into tennis when I was a kid, I was always academics-focused and if anything I much prefer football. So I guess he definitely kicked me into the sport.
“He was the motivation for me to really commit to tennis because at the time I was very much focused on academics, going to Oxbridge and doing the best that I could in my studies. It was a big turnaround and his comments played a massive part in my life decisions and career commitments to date.”
Already, you can see that Jones is not typical. How many children are targeting Oxbridge at the age of eight?
“I’ve been really ambitious,” she explained. “I’ve always wanted to make my parents proud more than anything.” Those parents are both financial advisors, now living in Surrey. Spurred on by the doctor’s scepticism, Jones made rapid progress. By the age of 10, she had won admission to Barcelona’s Sanchez-Casal Academy – a centre well known for tightening up Andy Murray’s teenage game. Her condition meant that she needed to use a lighter racket than most players, and to move her feet with unusual precision. But she never complained about her lot.
“Some people would say it’s a disadvantage [to suffer from her condition],” Jones told the BBC shortly before this qualifying tournament began. “Whereas I always feel like it’s an advantage.
“I’ve learned to be independent and it’s taught me a lot about myself and about life … 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.”
Tuesday’s pitched battle, which lasted 2hr 23min, required both strength of mind and physical endurance. Fortunately, Jones is in the best shape of her life. She used last year’s five-month Covid break to fit in extra fitness training, sneaking a few weights out of the National Tennis Centre’s gym on the day it shut.
All that stamina came in handy against Fett. As Jones made judicious use of the moonball to drag out longer and longer rallies, Fett’s patience eventually broke, and her radar went with it.
“We both made it more demanding at one point than it probably should have been,” said Jones, whose 6-3, 6-2 win over Niculescu on Monday had been contrastingly short and snappy.
“There were a lot of emotions in today’s match. It’s for me a very new experience. Of course I’m happy to get through but there is a bigger objective here and I need to recover and be ready.
“It’s kind of cool,” Jones added, when asked about the possibility of flying to Australia at the weekend. “You know like in the X-Factor, where you move onto the next stage? Simon Cowell tells you that you are through and you are on a flight to the live show. That’s how I see it at the moment. It would be great to go to Australia but my feet are very much on the ground. I am playing an experienced player and all I am focused on is what I need to do on the court tomorrow.”