Jordanne Whiley setting the stage for final Paralympic bow

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Jordanne Whiley and Yui Kamiji (The Yomiuri Shimbun )
Jordanne Whiley and Yui Kamiji (The Yomiuri Shimbun )

The Barlows and Battersbys may have Coronation Street, but Jordanne Whiley will always have Wimbledon, writes Rachel Steinberg.

Over the past few years, the wheelchair tennis star’s life has played out like an SW19 soap.

She was secretly 11 weeks pregnant with son Jackson when she won the women’s doubles with Yui Kamiji in 2017.

And two years later, the storied South London venue played host to another shocking twist when Whiley’s partner, coach, and fellow Paralympian Marc McCarroll engineered a surprise marriage proposal, popping the question via their toddler’s T-shirt.

The four-time Wimbledon champion starts her 2021 campaign today [Thursday] against 2019 women’s singles champion Aniek van Koot and will team up with Kamiji to face Angelica Bernal and Momoko Ohtani in the doubles on Friday.

Winning a 13th Grand Slam, said the number-one ranked Brit, would be more than enough drama for her.

“A lot has happened at Wimbledon,” she mused. “It’s my home Slam, so I just absolutely love it there.

“I promise there’s not going to be any surprises this year. No crazy announcements coming your way.

“I just want to have a really great Wimbledon and just appreciate the fact that the crowds are back.

“There’s something different about playing in your home nation. I love Wimbledon anyway.

“It’s one of my favourite tournaments of the year. It’s just such a great atmosphere, there’s the British crowd and I just absolutely love to feed off that.

“I definitely feel for me it’s an advantage playing at home.”

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The 29-year-old Birmingham native became Britain’s youngest-ever national women’s singles champion as a 14-year-old in 2007, and has witnessed a shift in momentum for wheelchair tennis in the decade-plus since, especially at her home Slam.

It’s why Whiley, who hopes to bounce back after losing to Dutch duo van Koot and Diede de Groot in the final when partnering Kamiji at Roland Garros, can’t wait to get in front of the fans in London.

She said: “It’s been a bit weird playing Grand Slams and big tournaments without any crowds, because we’re just not used to that anymore.

“It’s a great position for wheelchair tennis to be in, because ten years ago you weren’t expected to have any crowds anywhere, whereas now, especially at Wimbledon, we’re filling up the stands.”

More attention, she acknowledged, also has its downsides.

Like most of tennis, Whiley paid close attention to the controversy surrounding Naomi Osaka’s decision to withdraw from Roland Garros and Wimbledon.

The Japanese star cited mental health amongst her reasons for skipping the two Slams, as well as a desire to focus on the upcoming Tokyo Olympics.

Whiley is among the rare group of athletes who, like Osaka, have had the chance to compete at a home Games, winning a bronze medal with Lucy Shuker at the London 2012 Paralympic Games.

“At the end of the day, you’ve got to do what’s best for you,” she said.

“It’s all about what your personal goals are and what you’re trying to achieve. I think for her, to medal in a home Games, which kind of happens once in your lifetime, I can totally understand why that would be top of her list.

“I just think it’s the decision of the player. Some people see the Slams higher than the Olympics, and some people see the Olympics higher than the Slams. I think it’s all about personal goals and obviously she’s doing what’s good for her.

“The one thing I do really admire about Osaka is if she believes in something then she sticks with it and runs with it and I think that’s a really good trait to have.”

Whatever happens at Wimbledon, Whiley’s attention will shortly be drawn to the Paralympics.

Whiley and Shuker followed up their London bronze with a second at the Rio 2016 Games. Tokyo, Whiley admitted, will be her last chance to add a career-completing gold to her 59 titles.

“Literally, I’ve been playing tennis my whole life. The only thing I’ve ever really wanted was the gold medal,” said Whiley, who is hoping to add to the 864 Olympic and Paralympic medals won by Great Britain and Northern Ireland athletes since the advent of National Lottery funding in 1997.

“I seem to have achieved pretty much everything else.

“I’ve openly said this will be my last Games. I don’t have a [retirement] date in mind or a tournament where I’m just going to stop.

“I think I’m just going to continue to feel like I’m ready to stop. It will just be a feeling that I’ll get.

“And it also depends on how Tokyo goes.”

There’s a phrase scrawled across Whiley’s arm that most Brits can’t comprehend, but will send a clear message to any Tokyo locals.

Kamiji scribbled it in 2014, the night the best friends clinched the Calendar Grand Slam. Whiley liked it so much she got it permanently inked.

The tattoo reads “history-maker” in Japanese.

She’s more than earned the moniker already, but to write the elusive chapter at the final opportunity?

That’s the kind of drama Whiley is here for.

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