Rarely is there so much interest in a world No.245 and first-time grand slam qualifier as there has been in Britain’s Francesca Jones. You’ll know why when you read on.
Jones has ectrodactyly ectodermal dysplasia syndrome. The rare genetic condition means she was born with three fingers and a thumb on each hand, three toes on her right foot and four on her left.
Undaunted by a doctor’s prediction to the eight-year-old Jones that her physical challenges would cruel any chance of a professional tennis career, the determined youngster left her family and West Yorkshire home at 10 to train at the Sanchez-Casal Academy in Barcelona.
And now, having last month won through her three rounds of Australian Open qualifying in Dubai, then negotiated a fortnight of ”soft” hotel quarantine, lost her sole lead-up match, enjoyed multiple restaurant outings and a spot of pyjama shopping, Jones will this week make her major singles debut against American Shelby Rogers.
Asked by The New Daily how aware she was of the fascination with her story, given everything she has had to overcome, the 20-year-old said, amiably: “Well, I’m very aware of it simply because of the media I’ve got planned for the rest of the day.
“No, I mean, it’s great to be here and to be able to get my message across, which is: please don’t have any limits and keep pushing yourself. Do what it is that you want to do and just commit to it.
Look, if I can have any positive impact on children, adults, and they can take strength from my story and create their own, then that would be great.
“So it’s nice to have the platform here. My objectives are bigger than just qualifying for here, and hopefully I can continue to spread the word over the years.’’
Her media duties lasted an almost Federer-esque two hours, having started in Melbourne Park’s main interview room in a chair warmed by Serena Williams. A measure of Jones’ professionalism was the fact she then sought feedback from the WTA staffer who had accompanied her, asking what she could improve. For as many times as Jones has told her story, one can only imagine what, if the British No.5 does well at Wimbledon, might be to come.
Yet the keen foodie and aspiring university student is also clear she is not in it for the attention, per se, but to try to make a difference through what she achieves. As a voice for feminism and racial equality, Beyonce is among her non-tennis heroes.
I think every human being faces their own challenges, you know. I don’t want to put myself in the spotlight and say, ‘Oh, I’ve gone through X, Y and Z’,’’ she said.
“Every human being has barriers that they have to find a way to get over. I’ve had my barriers and I’m still challenged by those barriers, and I’m still working my way to get over them and move on to the next.’’
She has undergone multiple surgeries, and long used a lighter, modified racquet with a smaller grip. Because she has only seven toes, balance has been a big hurdle – yet not an insurmountable one. She says her “medication is mental strength’’ and credits the teams around her in both Spain and England for providing the intense physical assistance required.
“Yes, I do receive a lot of treatment. I have to look after my hips because of the way that I put weight through my feet and my shoes. It’s important that I look after the rest of my body that may try and compensate for some of those deficiencies.
“As I say, every player has to look after themselves on a day-to-day basis. This is a full-time job.’’
Had it ever seemed all just too hard?
“I feel like if you really want to commit yourself to something, of course you have doubts. It would be unrealistic for me to sit here and say that I’ve (never) had doubts that I would become a professional tennis player – but I have never doubted that I would be a professional tennis player as a result of my syndrome,” Jones said.
“I have doubted that I would be a professional tennis player as a result of my ability, as a result of my serve, my forehand, my backhand; the doubts that every professional tennis player encounters on their journey to the top.
“I want to be persistent. I want to just give everything I can, and if the result is not what I set it out to be, at least I won’t have regrets.’’
Immediately after qualifying, Jones made an emotional call to her financial-planner parents back home in Weybridge, Surrey, and received congratulatory WhatsApp messages from what she jokes were more people that she realised she knew.
There has also been encouragement from within the locker-room, including a recent chat with former US Open champion Sloane Stephens, and an approach from Swiss player Timea Bacsinszky a few years ago at the All England Club.
“She came over to me and said what she thought I was doing was phenomenal and I had all her support, and that was pretty awesome,” Jones said.
“I’ve actually kept that really close to my heart in the last few years because, at the time, she was a top-ranked player and I thought that was a really nice detail from her.’’
Media commitments complete, the weekend was to be devoted to preparing with her Spanish coach Andreu Guilera for the contest with Rogers, who pushed world No.1 Ash Barty to a match tiebreak on Friday. Even if she loses, the guaranteed prizemoney of $100,000 will almost double what Jones has won so far.
Yet the fact these are still early days for a young player who started out on the ITF circuit in 2015 means that Jones also retains some element of surprise. “Yeah … this is new territory for me, so it’s quite nice to be kind of the dark horse here.”
If, also, one comfortable in the spotlight, happily telling an inspiring story that will take a while yet to get old.