While Grand Slams try to come to terms with their own immediate futures, and players remain both divided and undecided about the wisdom of returning to the game too soon, spare a thought for our wheelchair players, all of whom have suffered the same lockdown challenges as their able-bodied counterparts.
In many ways, they are the forgotten ones of the competitive game.
Take Louise Hunt, now 29 and from Wiltshire, who was born with spina bifida, a congenital disorder which restricts movement in her lower limbs.
All she has known is life in a wheelchair but from the age of five years, she was encouraged to try out various sport options including mini wheelchair racing – and tennis.
It’s been hard because I have had to shield myself because of my general health, so I’ve missed tennis a lot. But the LTA has been helpful and I have been working to a fitness programme at home, so I do shadow swings and exercises. I’m hoping to get back on to court this week. Louise Hunt
Although she won 7 of her ten competitive races as a junior, she chose tennis. She was talent-spotted at the age of 11, and she won her first ITF Futures event when she was 19.
It was the start of a competitive journey that would see her achieve an ITF career-high world ranking of 10 by the time she was 25. To date, she has won an impressive 16 titles in her career.
But Covid19 has cost her – like so many of her fellow athletes on the tour – the opportunity to add to that number.
Indeed, when the lockdown was first announced at the end of February, she was about to head to Switzerland, then on to Italy, Czech Republic, Turkey, Portugal, Israel, Spain and France. Such is the vibrancy of the international wheelchair tour these days.
So how has she been coping?
“It’s been hard because I have had to shield myself because of my general health, so I’ve missed tennis a lot. But the LTA has been helpful and I have been working to a fitness programme at home, so I do shadow swings and exercises. I’m hoping to get back on to court this week.”
Louise is fortunate that her boyfriend is also a Paralympian, the sight-impaired Chris Skelley.
“He’s a judo fighter,” says Louise, “and while we haven’t been able to do our actual sports, we have been doing fitness exercises together. Physically, it’s been important for me to stay robust. Our bodies aren’t designed to do what we do, so we have to work extra hard to stay in shape.”
Part of keeping in shape relates to diet and Louise knows exactly her limitations.
“I’m not going to lie, I have had a couple of takeaways during the lockdown, a few treats, but generally I know what I need to eat. My team is supportive and there is a trust there that I will eat the right things. Also, I have been cooking a bit and gaining confidence and I have been enjoying it.”
Like so many disabled athletes, the London Paralympics in 2012 – her first – was pivotal for Louise.
“London 2012 was incredible not only for me but for the sport,” she says. “It was a disability breakthrough. I was just so pleased to get there. It was a defining moment in my career as it was such a platform for me to grow my confidence and attract sponsorship.”
Sponsorship for players like Louise is an essential part of her planning and preparation. Without it, she would not have been able to achieve her success. She has to supplement her lifestyle with two part time jobs, both with charities, but she has benefited from supportive sponsors along the way, including Babolat, Imagine Cruising, a chair sponsor Get Kids Going (since she was six years old) and Path to Success, which supports many disabled athletes on their journeys to success. Long term sponsorship is what gets these athletes on to court, and without them, there would be no wheelchair tennis!
Tennis is Louise’s life but off court, it’s not the only skill that she has.
“I have always loved music. It’s my thing, really, away from tennis. I play the piano and I am learning the ukulele and the guitar. I gave up piano at Grade 5 because I just wanted to get to a stage where I could pick up a piece of music and play it – and now I can.”
Having things to fall back on is a big prize for disabled athletes – indeed – for any athlete whose career is time-limited, but for Louise, she is maximising her tennis talent and living the moments.
“I just found a sport that I loved when I was young,” she says. “I’ve made friendships, a career and had a wonderful time. It’s given me a love for the game and I can’t wait to get back on tour in August.”