School Games 2017 | The Future’s Bright for British Wheelchair Tennis
While Andy Lapthorne and Lucy Shuker were lifting titles in St Louis, the next generation of British tennis aces were showcasing their skills at the 2017 School Games.
Set up as part of the London 2012 legacy the Games are a multi-sport event for elite athletes of school age and include a total of twelve sports – eleven current and future Olympic and Paralympic sports and the twelfth girls cricket, which was introduced as a demonstration sport this year.
Wheelchair tennis has been a feature of these games since 2015 and the competition showcases some of the most promising young tennis players in the UK.
Among them was debutant and double gold medallist at this years event Fran Smith.
18-year-old Smith, who has previously played wheelchair basketball, only picked up a tennis racket and started to play wheelchair tennis a few months ago but has already lifted the singles title in the junior event at the 2017 British Open, one of the six Super Series events on the UNIQLO wheelchair tennis tour.
And her singles final at the School Games against Abbie Breakwell was a replay of that very final only a few weeks ago.
In a match that stood out as one of the best over the weekend and clearly indicates that once these two girls reach senior level they are going to produce some knockout tennis and have us glued to the action with their blossoming on court rivalry, Breakwell started stronger and gained the early advantage taking the first set.
The second set gave us some exciting momentum shifts and world-class rallies but it was Smith who came out on top, making a comeback Alfie Hewett himself would be proud of and forcing a deciding tie-break.
And it was a tie-break that had all watching on the edge of their seats, Breakwell having match point at 9-8 before Smith went on to take the next three points and take the decider, the match and the gold medal 2-4 4-2 11-9.
Smith said: “It’s amazing, it’s my first and last year here and I wanted to come in and just win gold and I’ve hit my achievement, I’m really happy.
“Everyone has improved so much since the British Open, especially Abbie as well – she was hitting some shots today that I would never come close to getting and it was a really tough match.”
Earlier in the day Smith had also claimed the gold medal in the girls doubles with Lilly Folland, another stand out performer at these games and definitely one to watch for the future not just because of her skill on the court but also because of her attitude off court.
Smith continued: “I’m so proud for my partner Lilly as well because she is only ten years old.
“We played as one person on court, we were communicating, her shots were beautiful, my shots were beautiful – it was the best match we’ve ever played.”
Other gold medallists at the event included Ross Gourley in the boys singles and George Davies and Dahnon Ward in the boys doubles.
Gourley said about his gold medal winning performance on finals day: “I’m absolutely ecstatic, I’ve missed out on medals before over the last two years and been pipped to bronze but to win the gold this year I’m delighted.”
More than just a sporting event
But for these young athletes the School Games is about more than what happens on the court.
By setting the campus at Loughborough University out just like an Olympic village it offers them a chance to experience life as a professional player over four days and also has it’s own education programme which the young sports stars of the future can benefit from.
Everything from sports psychology to anti-doping and athlete nutrition is covered and this year sessions were even introduced for parents to help them support their young athlete through life as an elite sportsperson.
And in addition to all of that to help them through the four day experience and share some words of wisdom they had access to a passionate group of athlete mentors, who knew exactly what it was like to be in this kind of environment.
For the wheelchair tennis players, it was Paralympic GB’s Louise Hunt who was there to support them and to say she was a popular mentor for the up and coming youngsters would be an understatement.
You could see these young players were keen to learn from the British number two and they could regularly be seen asking for feedback after matches, a task which Hunt undertook with her usual positivity, her smile which never seemed to fade no matter what and words of encouragement when needed.
Hunt said of the event: “I think they do a really amazing job here, I wish they’d had something like this when I was young as it would have prepared me so much better for my Olympic experience because it relates closely to what we have in an actual athletes village.
“The one thing I would say which I love though is that they still keep that element of fun and being young about it.
“It’s a massive compliment to be asked to be here, I did my first School Games as an athlete mentor two years ago in Manchester and I was so nervous because I had only been working for the Youth Sport Trust for about a year so I was still a bit of a newbie but I absolutely loved it.”
“And I’ll be honest I was gutted I couldn’t be here last year because I was in Rio, obviously Rio was great but I was really hoping the dates would fall so I could do both but they didn’t so it’s an honour to be asked back this year.”
And one of the things she was particularly impressed with when she returned was the way athletes were educated about clean sport.
Hunt said: “These guys do an amazing job because I think with the anti-doping stuff, well it’s not exactly fun is it let’s be honest and it’s a hard thing to educate on because it’s quite boring.
“But it’s incredibly important, probably one of the most important if not the most important thing in any sport is to understand how that system works so their presence here is crucial and I think they are educating people in a fun and interesting way.”
And keen to lead by example Hunt even had a go at the interactive quiz that UK anti-doping had going to help athletes understand the process and how it works.
We won’t reveal her result but needless to say it might be worth remembering in future Louise that wise piece of advice given out by many a teacher before exams – to make sure you read the question fully first.