For Britain’s most successful tennis player, Jordanne Whiley, it is gold or bust in Rio. She admits being a Paralympic champion in either, or both, the singles and doubles in the wheelchair tournaments will be greater than any of the nine Grand Slam titles she has won. Katie Smith hears how Whiley hopes to inspire future generations just as GB’s hockey team inspired her at last month’s Olympic Games
As an hors d’oeuvre to the Paralympic Games, the Olympics whetted Jordanne Whiley’s appetite so much she cannot wait to get down to business in Rio next week. The nine-times Grand Slam wheelchair tennis champion admits she watched transfixed from her sofa at the astonishing achievements of Team GB and was particularly inspired by the incredible performance of the hockey team in winning Britain’s first gold medal in the event.
Whiley summed up succinctly the fervour generated across the nation by Kate Richardson-Walsh’s team when she said: “I don’t even like hockey, I don’t know the rules. I’ve never watched hockey in my life, but I was so passionate about watching this event from the semis. When they won I was at my friend’s house screaming at the TV. It was really emotional and I was so happy for them. They train at the same centre that we do and I know some of the girls and that got me into good spirits and makes me want to get out there.”
Though Whiley, an MBE in the 2015 Honours List, has won the doubles at least once at each of the four Grand Slam tournaments, as well as winning the US Open singles last year, it is a Paralympic gold medal she wants dearly to wear around her neck. Or preferably two as she competes in both the singles and doubles events in Brazil. She won bronze alongside Lucy Shuker at the London Games in 2012, and acknowledges the seriousness with which she approaches Rio because the Paralympic Games only come around every four years.
She explained: “It’s not like the Grand Slams where we get four attempts a year. If you mess it up you’ve got another one; if you mess this [the Paralympics] up, you could have to wait another four years.” So how does an elite athlete prepare for pressure like that? The answer, she says is: push themselves even harder. And stay off social media for a while.
Whiley’s bronze in London was one of the 120 medals won by Team GB, but she is very realistic about her performance there. “I got on the podium, but I didn’t do the best, I only got bronze,” she says.
Likewise this year’s Wimbledon, which marked the eagerly-anticipated debut of a wheelchair singles event. Despite claiming her third doubles title with partner and best friend Yui Kamiji of Japan, Whiley was disappointed with her performance in the singles. “I let the event get the better of me, but in a way it was a blessing. It taught me not to think of the outcome before you’ve reached the final or even the semis. I’m glad it happened there rather than in Rio.”
She added: “I’m more nervous about the singles event. I’m seeded third for Rio and I’ve done it in Grand Slams, but never on a Paralympic court. For me that would be the most special, and the most emotional if I was to get on the podium.”
She seems little concerned about the horror stories about Rio’s apparent poor preparations for the Paralympics. Though still only 24 years old, Rio will be Whiley’s third Paralympic Games. She describes Beijing as simple and a bit boring, London as unbeatable, while with Rio announcing record ticket sales this week, it would be an understatement to say she isn’t just a little bit excited for the Opening Ceremony on September 7 to come around!
Whiley suffers from brittle bone disease, just like her father Keith, but she does not allow the condition to prevent her enjoying life as a multi-talented young woman. Apart from being Britain’s most successful tennis player, she has found time to indulge in her passion for music. She has just released her first single, ‘Push the Clouds Away’, which is available to buy now. Even her boyfriend, fellow wheelchair tennis player Marc McCaroll, knew nothing about her non-sporting interest. Indeed, he only found out that she could sing last year. Nevertheless it seems fitting that the song, written by Jordanne herself, is about her boyfriend.
“I’ve always wanted to release my own song,” she says, “and then I wrote this song about my boyfriend and recorded it in the studio. I’ve always been very musical and it’s a way to de-stress from training. I’ll listen to the lyrics of a song rather than its melody because that’s how a song would mean something to me. I do often relate my sport with my music.”
In fact, her own lyrics seem to indicate a strong connection to her personal ambition of being a Paralympic role model. She sings: “Things don’t always happen like you dream them”, but that certainly does not mean that dreams cannot come true in ways you least expect.
Like many in British sport right now, Whiley is already looking at how she can ensure the growth of her sport and leave a lasting legacy. “If you come home with that medal you get the media coverage and that’s what Paralympians need,” she says. So her Paralympic dream includes an additional significance: to borrow a well-worn buzz phrase for 2012, Jordanne Whiley is competing not just to win, but to ‘inspire a generation’.
Away from the court, she says of her singing aspirations: “I would like to record more songs, but that’s not my priority now. I know I’m not going to become the next Rihanna, but it’s something that I enjoy. I’m not looking to make a career out of it …” But there is a twinkle in her eye as she pauses before adding: “Unless something big comes along! I wouldn’t turn it down! But when I stop tennis I’d still like to stay within my sport. I’ve got a lot to offer the next generation.”
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