I was invited to umpire a rather unusual and utterly inspiring tennis tournament last year, and this year I had the privilege of playing in it.
This was the Metro national tennis tournament, organised for and by people with visual impairments (VI), also known as ‘VI tennis’. Much to my surprise, it is a fast and furious game.
Many people can’t see their opponent, so the rule is to always shout ‘ready?’ and when the opponent replies ‘yes’, the server will shout ‘play’ when the serve is about to be hit. Everyone is allowed two ball bounces, with those who have very low vision / totally blind being allowed three. The ball contains a bell or ball bearings, which gives the players the auditory input necessary to find the ball on the court.
As a Physio, I was astounded at their ability to stay upright as they ran towards a ball with significantly limited visual information, and the determination of those who did fall quite badly, obtain a huge carpet graze, and got straight back up again as if nothing had happened.
I was also amazed at the brain’s ability to find the ball so quickly and to somehow get the racket in the right place at the right time.
As well as the usual doubles and singles, the tournament also put on a mixed vision tournament, whereby a fully sighted player would partner up with a visually impaired player. I was invited to play by Paul, who has macular degeneration.
It took a bit of getting used to the shorter court, ball and racket (and I was only allowed one bounce and not allowed to volley), but it turned out to be a challenging and fun game.
Personally, I enjoy being around inspiring people undertaking great things. It’s also satisfying to support a new and emerging sport, and to teach newcomers how it all works. This is not just a sport, but a social opportunity for people who may have become quite isolated. I also recognise that if I were to lose my own sight and be unable to play tennis, I would suffer greatly so it’s a pleasure to be able to facilitate the sport.
Metro are trying to get the game into the Paralympics one day, and this year during the Paralympics showcased the sport at St. Paul’s cathedral. Funds are still required to develop the unique ball, and to ensure new players get the right coaching and opportunities. Physios may be in a perfect place to identify new players, or to signpost visually impaired people to this unique sporting opportunity.
The sport is very new, so finding more players is essential to further expand the game and ensure there are sufficient numbers of people to play competitively.
Maybe you know someone who is visually impaired, or have impairment yourself? Maybe you could help set up a group or help with sessions near you? Maybe you’d just like to be involved? If you or anyone you know would like to find out more about VI tennis, either as a participant or volunteer, see: www.metroblindsport.org.uk