Blind tennis is not as hard as it sounds. It is much harder. I can say this with absolute confidence having played the game briefly recently and been absolutely useless.
Coaches working with the Irish Blind Tennis team, taking part in the sport’s World Championships in the leafy south Co Dublin suburb of Shankill later this week, took me through my paces and despite their endless patience and the baby shots they hit in my direction, I failed to return a single ball.
To give me a sense of what it is like to play Blind or Vision Impaired Tennis they had fitted me with a blindfold and handed me a racket and told to stand on specially elevated tennis tramlines.
Then coach Derek Healy stood across the net from me and shouted “ready”. Then he shouted “play”. And then he hit the ball towards me. The idea was I would listen to the tinkle of the bell in the foam ball as it bounced toward me and then quickly work out where it would bounce next before running to that spot to return it.
Time and time and time again I stood rooted to the spot swinging wildly at thin air.
Being deprived of my sight left me afraid to move left or right in case I fell or got tangled up in the net. So instead of racing to the ball I waited for the ball to come to me. Even when it did, I missed it every time.
I managed to serve a couple of the specially adapted tennis balls over the regulation size net during the training session but despite a smattering of applause from the far-too-kind people watching at the side of the court, I’m pretty sure none of the balls were in. I can’t say for certain because I couldn’t see a blessed thing.
It was beyond disconcerting and after 10 minutes or so my respect for the athletes who play the game for real on the courts beside me soared. Rallies of six shots are not unheard of at the highest level and the speed and energy involved is remarkable.
The best of the best will be on display later this week as up to 60 players from 13 countries will descend on Dublin where the World Championships is being held for the first time. Competitors from Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Singapore, South Africa, Spain, Pakistan, Poland, Great Britain and Ireland will take part.
The ones to watch are the Japanese. That is where blind tennis was born in the 1980s and it took more than 30 years to make it to Dublin. It was introduced here in 2016 by Tennis Ireland and Vision Sports Ireland.
The game is played on a realigned tennis court with special tennis balls equipped with bells which tinkle when the ball bounces. Raised tactile tram lines are used as navigational markers to help athletes recognise their position on the court.
Athletes are classified using Paralympic sight classifications: B1, B2 and B3. B1 players have no vision or no functional vision. B2and B3 players have a small amount of useful sight within a reduced field of vision.
The tournament organiser is the president of Leinster Tennis, Liam O’Donohoe, the man who brought the game to Ireland. “I was looking at other organisations creating opportunities for people with special needs and autism and things like that when I discovered that there was something called blind tennis. None of us knew it existed,” he says.
My initial reaction to the idea was, ‘Who is this muppet and what drugs is he taking?’
People who are blind or vision impaired can be “quite isolated”, he continues. “And it can be quite difficult to compete in any sport. What this game does is brings people into a community, they become part of a club and that is very empowering. And of course there’s the fitness element. A lot of the guys on the courts now would’ve had quite sedentary lifestyles. There is also the pride of being on Irish team competing at the top level.”
Derek Healy of Shankill Tennis Club is coaching the internationals. “The challenges are substantial,” he says with some understatement. “You don’t get see the ball and you have to recognise the bounce, and tracking becomes more difficult. How you move the ball becomes much more difficult. It is a very challenging sport.”
He is pretty handy on the court when playing with full vision but admits that he “wouldn’t be great” when he plays with a blindfold. He is a lot better than me. “I’m never going see the ball but because I’m a coach and a player I have a good sense of tracking and very good ball awareness so that gives me a huge advantage.”
He says the players he has been coaching for the last two years have benefited from the workouts but also because they “feel like they are part of something great and it’s fantastic for their self-esteem. They’re competing and they’re making friends.”
There are three levels from B1 to B3. The B1 players are fully blind while the B3 players have around 10 per cent vision. “For the B1s it is really built around the serve and the return because there is so little sight that the players who gets to serve generally wins the point. With B3 it is more about the rallies and they can can last between four and six shots.
Roisin Dermody is ranked number five in the world in the B1 category and has been playing for less than two years. When she first heard about blind tennis from Liam O’Donohoe, her “initial reaction was who is this muppet and what drugs is he taking? Blind people playing tennis? Are you having a giraffe?”
But she was convinced to give to give it a go. “I hit a ball with a racket for the first time in my life and I was going ‘Oh my God.’ It was just the most amazing sensation and I was sort of hooked after that.”
She reached the quarter finals in last year’s world championships in Spain and is hoping to match that in front of a home crowd. “Representing Ireland is an amazing feeling,” she says.
Helena Mollaghan has been playing since last September and like Roisin she thought the notion was “crazy” but says it has given her “this amazing sense of freedom”. She says that someone who is vision impaired or blind is “so restricted” in their movements that simply being able to able to move left or right and compete on a tennis court is “just amazing”.