Fran Jones is the British No 4
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There will be at least 14 British singles players at Wimbledon next week, each of them hoping for his or her golden hour on Centre Court. And yet, no matter what the other 13 achieve, it will pale alongside what 20-year-old Fran Jones has already done, simply by appearing at this tournament for the first time.
Jones is a miracle-worker – an inspiration to all those who face apparently insuperable odds. She was born with six fingers and seven toes as a result of a rare genetic condition called Ectrodactyly Ectodermal Dysplasia.
Merely gripping the racket is a challenge, let alone firing the ball through the court at 100mph or above. And yet, Jones finds a way. More than that, she is the British No 4.
It is extraordinary enough that a girl with such obvious disadvantages would set out to become a professional athlete, and doubly so that she has succeeded, becoming one of the best 200-odd practitioners to emerge from an estimated 100 million active tennis players worldwide.
But here Jones is mixing with Serena Williams, Ashleigh Barty and the rest in the All England Club locker-rooms. Indeed, she cites Williams as a role model for her own astonishing feats. “Serena helped me realise that humans don’t need to have limits,” she told reporters this week. “She always pushes her own boundaries and that’s what it’s about – pushing each individual boundary that you set out for yourself.”
So how did Jones make it to Wimbledon? As a very young child, she describes herself as “chubby” and not particularly athletic. She was constantly in and out of hospital, undergoing numerous operations to mitigate the effects of her EED – which included a cleft palate. She does not know exactly how many times she had surgery but says it was “definitely in double figures”.
But Jones is the most defiant of souls. Determined to “be the best version of myself”, she was soon beating the other children. And when a doctor scoffed at her enthusiasm for the sport, telling this spiky eight-year-old that she could never have a chance of playing professionally, her direction in life was set.
Jones during a practice session at the Viking Classic tournament in Birmingham
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As she told reporters in January: “I wouldn’t like to mention his [the doctor’s] name but … 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.”
The daughter of two financial advisors who live in Surrey, Jones is high-powered intellectually as well as a fierce competitor. A fast learner, she mastered Spanish quickly after moving to Spain at the age of nine, where she trained at the same Sanchez-Casal Academy where Andy Murray spent a couple of teenage years. She still lives in Barcelona, and her support team – including fitness trainer Roberto Vavassori – are based there as well.
Vavassori’s role is crucial because of Jones’s unique circumstances. As she has said: “My feet work in a different way and that means I run differently. I’ve always had a really, really small grip and a light racket. In the gym, I have spent a lot of time trying to gain strength to support the – I don’t want to say deficiencies – but just the weaknesses that I may have. I think every human being has physical weaknesses unless you’re Cristiano Ronaldo or something.”
You can see the effects of Jones’s intense training schedule in her legs, which are so lean and muscular that they could belong to a footballer. No matter how hard she works, though, she is vulnerable to injury – or to ferocious attacks of cramp, which often start with pain in the tendons of her right forearm.
Only a couple of weeks ago, she was struck down by one of these all-body cramps after a three-set match in Nottingham. The medical staff treated her with ice as she lay on the court, quivering in agony, for at least half an hour, before a wheelchair finally arrived to carry her away. It was the second such incident in the space of three months.
“I was 3-1 up in the third set and cruising,” said Jones of that match against Georgina Garcia Perez. “When that happens, of course you feel disappointed that you have not managed to capitalise on an opportunity. But it’s important that I try to move on. The mechanics of my body are like no other athlete, so it’s about understanding those mechanics, and how we work towards developing them.”
Jones arrived for this week’s Zoom interview wearing an England football shirt from Euro 2000 – the summer of her birth – with David Beckham’s No 7 on the back. “I’m a bit of a geek about football,” she said, in relation to her obsessive fandom of Manchester United. She also admits that she spent Wednesday night watching both Euros matches simultaneously on her big screen, and “writing down tactics to send to Gareth Southgate”.
This was Jones through and through. She brings extreme commitment to every aspect of her life, whether it is studying, cooking or supporting her favourite team. Whoever she plays next week, she will approach the match with this same intensity. It is the key to how Jones became a sporting unicorn: a woman with a significant disability who still manages to compete with the best athletes in the world.