Wheelchair tennis players are a breed apart. If you consider the sacrifices that they have to make in order to achieve any sort of competitive standard in their chosen sport, few would choose it as a career path. That is why they are special.
And there is none more special than Nottingham based teenager, Abbie Breakwell, a 21st-century girl (born 2003) bursting with energy and enthusiasm to make it in her chosen sport – and beyond.
I feel that tennis for me has been a ‘learnt’ skill. It’s not only changed my life, but also allowed me to have friends and confidence. Abbie Breakwell
She chose tennis – or rather it chose her – after her enthusiasm as a ‘crew member’ was spotted by one of the coaches at a wheelchair event in Nottingham in 2015.
“It was a fluke I got in at all,” says Abbie. “I was at the Wheelchair Tennis British Open tournament in Nottingham, but due to my disability and being a bit slow and clumsy I did not make the ball crew and was put on the reserve list. I was really disappointed but when some of the team realised that they had to crew at the weekend, they decided to drop out and as they did, I was invited to join the team.”
From there, a racket was put in her hand by Tony Knappett and two hours later, he had identified – despite the bruises and blisters of a first-timer – the makings of a wheelchair tennis player.
Various coaches nurtured her talent over the next couple of years; Martyn Jones at Nottingham, Martyn Whait and Dawn Upton at Loughborough University and Richard Edgley at Grantham Tennis Club.
In the course of her first year, she was selected to play for England in the National School Games, winning a mix of medals in singles and doubles in 2017 and 2018.
In 2018 she was selected for the Junior Futures Elite Programme, a stepping stone for juniors in their quest to establish themselves as seniors. She won 6 national junior titles that year and became the British Open wheelchair tennis girls champion and was selected to represented Great Britain at the wheelchair tennis World Team Cup.
In 2019, she won a further 12 National titles in junior and adult tournaments, including the LTA National Wheelchair tennis series in female singles and doubles. Additionally, she won her first ITF ladies doubles title in Abingdon partnering Louise Hunt and ended the year with a world junior girl ranking of 11th, and 98th in the womens singles world rankings.
All of which is not bad for a player who has had to wear ankle foot orthotics since she was one. A further diagnosis restricts her out-of-chair walking to very short distances.
Given those disabilities, you might wonder how she has kept fit during lockdown.
“Keeping fit has been a challenge,” says Abbie, “because we haven’t been able to get on to court or into a gym. The LTA has been supportive throughout, and we have home programmes and a nutritionist in touch every week.”
Abbie, like her fellow players, needs to retain peak fitness for when the tour recommences in August, but for all of her upwardly mobile progress, she recognises with humility that she is an unlikely champion by acknowledging the hard work that it has taken her to get to where she is today.
“I don’t think that I had that much ability when I began; my hand eye co-ordination was not good and I spent ages on court with my coach. He saw potential in me, but I feel that tennis for me has been a ‘learnt’ skill. It’s not only changed my life, but also allowed me to have friends and confidence. We are a close family – we get together and although we can’t go for meals together we meet online and have encouraged each other during lockdown.”
Being friends with her fellow players doesn’t stop her being competitive when they get on to court, though.
“I have a rule – off court you are my friend but on court, you are my enemy and I will take you down. I step on court to win.”
Next stop for Abbie, after Loughborough College, where she is on a Duel Athlete sport programme , is a full time wheelchair tennis career.
But that means funding help and Abbie, like so many of her tennis colleagues, has been fortunate to benefit from various sponsors in her junior career, including a chair sponsor and Head rackets. She has also been supported in her journey by Path to Success, a charity which empowers and supports disabled female athletes across four major disability sports, including tennis.
“Funding is always a worry,” she says, “especially now. It costs around £600 a month to stay on the road, and there’s no prize money for juniors. So we rely heavily on our parents and sponsorship.”
Nevertheless, Wimbledon and World Team Cup beckon for Abbie. But there is more to her than just tournament success.
“I want to be able to inspire others like me to do sport. I found it hard to get into sport, so I want to encourage others.”
As an ambassador for several charities, she has the opportunity to do just that.