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A SMILE of satisfaction breaks out on James Keane’s face as he connects with the ball, sending it sailing over the net and landing it close to the baseline.
“Spot on, James,” shouts his coach from the other side of the net, where he’s “feeding” balls for James to hit.“Cracking shot.” And James has more right than most tennis players to feel proud of his shot – because he’s been totally blind since birth.
Before hitting his “cracking shot”, he’d had four other failed attempts to hit the special “sound ball” which has rattling ball-bearings inside to help blind players to track it.
James, 42, is one of a group of visually-impaired people who enjoy regular sessions at the Tees Valley Sound Tennis Club, which meets every Wednesday afternoon at the Splash leisure centre in Stockton, and on Friday afternoons at Tennis World in Middlesbrough.
It forms part of the North East Visually Impaired Tennis Club (NEVITC), which also has centres in Newcastle and Sunderland and is celebrating its fifth anniversary this year.
“I really enjoy it,” says James, wiping sweat from his eyes. “It can be frustrating trying to hit the ball but I like the challenge and you have to really listen. When I hit a good shot, I just feel fantastic.”
James lives alone in Stockton and has a personal assistant to support him. He looks forward to Wednesday afternoons more than anything. “It gets me out of the house, keeps me fit and I’ve made great friends,” he says.
The Tees Valley group was founded by Dave Donnelly, who works in adult social care for Stockton Borough Council. He was looking for new community activities and heard about blind tennis in the north of the region. He took advice from Wendy Glasper and Rosie Pybus, who run NEVITC, and the Tees Valley group was born two years ago.
Dave was born with no sight but regained some at the age of two. His initial aim was to just get the group going but he got hooked. His wife Jan is also a member, along with her sister Sue Whelan. The sisters have albinism, which means they have no pigment, and are visually impaired. “It’s something I never thought we’d be able to do but I came down to support Dave and I’ve never left,” says Jan. “It gives us a real sense of belonging.”
There are different levels in blind tennis, depending on the severity of visual impairment. Someone like James, who has no sight at all, is classed as “B1” and is allowed three bounces. A “B2” or “B3” player gets two bounces, while a “B4” has to make do with only once bounce.
Other members of the club include father-of-three Steve Hogarth, 59, who played tennis and squash to a high level until he suffered a stroke in 2007. It left him visually impaired and he also has type 1 diabetes which will eventually lead to total blindness. “When I had my stroke, I was a couch potato. Then Dave Donnelly knocked on my door one day and asked if I fancied playing tennis.” Steve’s unhesitating reply was: “That would be brilliant.”
Since then, he’s won competitions and says he’s been given “a new lease of life”. As a level three coach, Leslie Snaith was used to teaching able-bodied players the finer points of the game but he admits to having become emotionally attached to the sound tennis group. “It’s incredibly rewarding to see them being able to play a sport they love,” he says. “There are times when it reduces me to tears.”
And there is clearly a strong bond between the members. They support each other and socialise together. There’s great excitement about how they’ll fare against players from other parts of the country in the Tennis World Super Summer Slam tournament on July 14, and they’re holding a fundraising evening at the Buffs Club in Stockton on September 10. Coach Leslie will be doubling up as a DJ, with proceeds going towards buying more sound balls.
Before that though, the members will be enjoying Wimbledon. For those with more sight than others, they’ll be able to watch at least some of the action on television, as long as they’re right up to the screen and have the lights turned off.
For James Keane, it will mean being glued to the radio – apart from Wednesday and Friday afternoons when he’ll be out on court, listening for the rattle of the ball, and dreaming of another cracking passing shot.
As Wimbledon approaches, Peter Barron experiences playing tennis blind.