There was some luck involved for a player ranked 245 in the world to get a spot in the Australian Open qualification round. A series of withdrawals meant that 20-year-old Brit Francesca Jones would be allowed to compete in her first ever Grand Slam qualifiers. Thereon though, there would be no help on offer. Even if she had the ‘deficiency’ (she prefers to call it “weakness”) of having just three fingers and a thumb on each hand, four toes on her left foot and three on her right foot.
But it mattered little, and she would have had it no other way. Once the qualifiers started, this time in Dubai because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the Bradford-born youngster played with purpose. Her ‘weakness’ was conspicuous, but it had little effect on her gritty game. She pulled off an upset win over former World No 11 Monica Niculescu of Romania in the opening round, then beat Croatian Jana Fett in three sets, before storming past Chinese player Jia-Jing Lu 6-0, 6-1 to qualify for her first ever Grand Slam main draw.
On Friday, at the draw ceremony in Melbourne, it was declared that World No 60 Shelby Rogers from the United States will be her opponent in the Australian Open first round. “They didn’t really have much to say,” Jones told The Guardian, about when she called her parents with the news that she had qualified for the Melbourne Slam. “All I could hear was crying, screams and my dog was barking. It was quite an emotional call because obviously we’ve gone through a lot together.”
She was born with ectrodactyly ectodermal dysplasia syndrome – which affects the development of hands and feet. It meant that she would be forced to lose a great deal of court-time to surgery and recovery. Tennis, in the first place, happened simply because she was “a bit chubby.” But it was never something she was medically expected to pursue.
“I went to the doctors and they told me I wouldn’t be able to play tennis due to whatever disadvantages they thought I had,” she had told the International Tennis Federation (ITF) during an interview. “And that was kind of my decision that, ‘you know what, you’ve said that, now I’m not going to prove you wrong.”
She used a racquet with a special handle fitted so she could grip it while she was growing up. But having just three toes on her right-foot – her dominant foot – meant she had to make adjustments that her peers on the tour were never required to.
“Balance is a big thing,” she told the ITF. “When you have less toes you automatically don’t have much to put your weight into. Definitely, the balance is a big one and my body isn’t built to become an athlete, let’s say. But to me that doesn’t mean it can’t be.”
Curiously, despite her ‘weaknesses’ her game-style is rather physical. She looks to work her opponents before using her heavy topspin forehand to kill off a point. It’s a skill she developed at the same place three-time Grand Slam champion Andy Murray learnt to ply his trade, the Sanchez-Casal Academy in Barcelona – where she’s been training since she was nine.
Of course, that stint in Barcelona had been interrupted many times because she needed surgery. Despite the high-intensity nature of the sport today, she’s remarkably never had an injury because of tennis.
“There’s obviously a lot more risk of injuries… I’ve already had 10 surgeries. That’s something I have to deal with in a different way. I’ve never had an injury that has taken me out that hasn’t been…. caused by my syndrome,” she added in the interview with the ITF.
Over the past few years though, she’s started to build herself physically for the sport of attrition. She started working with weights just two years ago, putting in some gym-work whenever she got a chance to during the busy tour schedule. The lockdown though meant she could focus more on building up her strength, helping her somewhat catch-up with her peers.
And though the 2020 season was truncated, especially for lower-ranked players who could not find many tournaments to enter into because of the pandemic, she’s managed to rise rapidly from the 352-rank she held at the start of 2020 to the 245 she’s currently on. She’s expected to move up to 217 once the rankings are updated after the Australian Open.
Against the odds and what was medically expected of her, she’s now poised to become a legitimate Grand Slam competitor. No matter what anybody says, she’s gotten there on merit. No luck involved.