Tennis star defies doctors at Grand Slam debut

Inspiring: Francesca Jones did not let countless operations stop her getting to the top. © Getty

Should we all make more of our gifts? In hours, Francesca Jones will play in the Australian Open despite having only three fingers on each hand – an incredible triumph over adversity.

“All I could hear was crying and my dog was barking.”

When tennis player Francesca Jones qualified for the Australian Open at the heats in Dubai last month, the first thing she did was phone her parents.

It was an emotional conversation. Playing in a major international tennis tournament is an extraordinary achievement for any 20-year-old. But for Francesca Jones, the journey from talented teen to pro-player was even more difficult than usual.

Jones, from Yorkshire, has a rare genetic condition. She was born with just six fingers and two thumbs, and only seven toes. It makes holding a tennis racket – and even balancing – a huge challenge.

As a child, she loved playing tennis at summer camp, but the doctors were pessimistic about her progress. One even told her she would never make it as a professional. Yet Jones never had any doubts.

“When someone does say to you at eight 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.”

The next year she did just that. Aged just nine, she said goodbye to her parents and moved to Barcelona to join the famous Sánchez Casal Academy. There, with her specially adapted racket in hand, she excelled.

“The way I see it is that I am just playing the game with a different set of cards,” Jones told reporters before her qualifying matches in Dubai. “But it doesn’t mean those cards still can’t win the game.”

Her words were prophetic. Jones was not seriously expecting victory in Dubai – her fingers had split from the cold in the UK and she had only packed one set of pyjamas. Still, she triumphed.

And today, as the British hopeful took on American Shelby Rogers in her Grand Slam debut, she hoped her story would inspire others. “The reason I started committing as a professional is because I want people to take positives from what I have managed to do so far.”

At 20, Jones’ journey as a disabled athlete in an able-bodied world is just beginning. But others have shown her that success is possible. In 2008, swimmer Natalie du Toit became the first female amputee to qualify for the Olympics against able-bodied opponents.

And in Hawaii, surfer Bethany Hamilton is still competing professionally 18 years after she lost her arm to a vicious tiger shark attack.

But not everyone needs to be so brilliant, some say. In great literary classics, it is often the fictional everyman – and not the accomplished hero – who captures the reader’s heart.

Indeed, it is arguably faithful but illiterate squire Sancho Panza, not mad knight Don Quixote, who is the true hero of Miguel de Cervantes’ eponymous classic.

Sherlock Holmes would be lost without his dependable – yet decidedly ordinary - sidekick Watson. And it is typical Englishman Arthur Dent, who haplessly leaps from crisis to crisis all while wearing his dressing gown, who somehow becomes the star of science fiction series The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Is it okay to be average?

Grand debut

No, say some. Francesca Jones’ incredible achievement is a reminder of what it is possible to achieve when you commit to your dreams. Her message to her fans is clear: “please don’t have any limits and keep pushing yourself”. Jones’s determination to overcome huge obstacles and become a professional athlete shows us why giving up and accepting mediocrity should never be an option.

Yes, say others. It is time we accepted reality – not everyone can be a great athlete or brilliant musician. Average but hardworking people are the backbone of our society. Determination alone cannot take you to the Australian Open – you also need natural talent or skill. And, as Jones herself says: “Each person shouldn’t compare themselves to the human next to them.”

You Decide

  1. Which is more important – talent or determination?
  2. Is everybody capable of doing great things?

Activities

  1. Imagine you are a reporter interviewing Francesca Jones after her match today. Write a list of five questions you would ask her. Then compare your questions with your classmates.
  2. Think of an average person who you admire. What are the qualities they have that impress you? Make a short presentation explaining your reasons.

Some People Say...

“Some people are born mediocre, some people achieve mediocrity, and some people have mediocrity thrust upon them.”

Joseph Heller (1923 - 1999), American author

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed by psychologists that most people in the West think they have above average positive qualities, despite this being technically impossible for everyone. This lack of insight is known as illusory superiority. For example, in one classic 1977 study, 94% of professors rated themselves as above average related to their peers. Drivers also consistently rate their driving skills as above average – even when hazard perception tests show otherwise.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate surrounds why the illusory superiority phenomenon is common in Western cultures but not Eastern ones. “North Americans seem to be the kings and queens of overestimation. If you go to places like Japan, Korea or China, this whole phenomenon evaporates,” says psychologist David Dunning. He believes this is because Eastern cultures value self-improvement whilst Western cultures value self-esteem. But others say the phenomenon is caused by a Western focus on individualism.

Word Watch

Genetic condition
Jones was born with ectrodactyly ectodermal dysplasia, which affects the development of the hands and feet.
Sánchez Casal Academy
A World-Class Tennis Academy Founded in 1998 by former world number seven Emilio Sánchez Vicario and Sergio Casal.
Grand Slam
The Australian Open is one of the four most important annual tennis tournaments known as the majors or the Grand Slams. Players who qualify are guaranteed to win £55,000 in the first round.
Bethany Hamilton
Hamilton was 13 when she was attacked while surfing in 2003. She made headlines around the world when she returned to competition only two months later.
Everyman
An everyman is a type of stock character appearing in plays, books, films and television series. The everyman is usually defined as an ordinary and humble person who the audience can easily relate to.
Sancho Panza
Sancho Panza is a short and fat peasant who is known for his common sense and perceptive proverbs. In one scene, Panza reminds Don Quixote that he is not seeing giants with enormous arms, but rather windmills with sails.
Eponymous
Named after a particular person or group. In this case, Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes named his novel Don Quixote after the book’s main character.
Arthur Dent
One of Dent’s main problems during his travels through the galaxies is the lack of tea to drink. Eventually, he finds happiness as a sandwich-maker.
Haplessly
Unluckily and without intention. The term derives from the Old Norse words “happ” and “ohapp”, meaning good luck and bad luck.

Subjects

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