British champions Whiley and Reid ‘here to win Wimbledon’ as first singles wheelchair draw made
Wimbledon has added a wheelchair singles tournament to the doubles that it debuted a decade ago
While the gates of the All England Club were opening at the appointed hour, 10.30am, for another day of high-profile action on the now slightly worn green and brown turf of Wimbledon, a small revolution was taking place in the quiet heart of the media centre.
This year, for the first time, The Championships is adding a wheelchair singles tournament to the doubles that it debuted a decade ago—the first tennis Major to do so. Shingo Kuneida, as he went on to do several times at every singles and doubles Major, won that first trophy.
The women’s doubles event was not added to the schedule here until three years later, when the name of the sport’s most famous exponent, Esther Vergeer, added Wimbledon to the countless Majors she had already won.
Sadly, Vergeer has now retired and Shingo, who won all three singles Majors during 2014 and 2015, is injured—surely a bitter pill now that Wimbledon completes the wheelchair ‘set’.
So a disappointment for some, yet for Great Britain a gain, for the home nation has two of the best wheelchair tennis players in the world, and neither could hide their pleasure at fulfilling long-held hopes of playing for a singles trophy here.
Gordon Reid and Jordanne Whiley, both just 24 years old, are both multiple Major champions.
Reid, ranked No3 in singles and No1 in doubles, won his first singles Major in Australia this year, but is also reigning doubles champion at the US and French Opens.
Whiley is ranked No3 in singles and No4 in doubles, is two-time defending Wimbledon doubles champion, has five further doubles titles, and is reigning US Open singles champion. No wonder both players are so delighted to have the chance of adding Wimbledon singles to their trophy cabinets.
Immediately after the draw, which will see Reid play Frenchman Nicolas Peifer in the first round, he enthused: “I’m just really excited to get going. I’ve always grown up watching Wimbledon on TV, mainly the singles event. It was always a dream of mine to play singles here. To now have that opportunity to be a part of the first field of players that’s going to go down in history is a massive opportunity.
“The Slams are the biggest tournaments in the calendar. For us to be here, be involved in singles as well now, it’s a huge milestone for our sport. It’s another brilliant opportunity for us to raise the profile of wheelchair tennis. Every time we’ve come here in the past and played doubles, the support we’ve had from the British public, from the people here at Wimbledon, has been spectacular.”
Whiley has also avoided one of the two big seeds in her opener. She added: “I think now is the right time. It’s really a good time to showcase our sport. I think the quality of wheelchair tennis is at its highest.
“Wimbledon is really special. We live in Great Britain. For us to be able to showcase our sport to the highest level in the singles event is absolutely fantastic. I know for me this one’s the big one. I really want to do well here. I’m here to win Wimbledon singles. I’m sure Gordon is as well.”
So why not before, why no singles here as well as doubles?
The two Britons explained that, quite simply, the physicality demanded by wheelchairs on grass has been a big hurdle.
“I think it’s going to be really difficult on the grass because we’ve only really known doubles and now we have to cover a whole court… It’s a little bit like carpet in a way that it’s got a lot of friction. With all the rain this year, it’s going to be quite soft. So for us, just pushing is going to be really tough on the shoulders, especially if the match is going to go like three or four hours, we have to make sure we’re really ready.
Reid added: “On grass you don’t hold the momentum. You push the same way as you would on hard court, so you’re constantly having to generate power and shift your body weight every time you push the chair. It’s going to be a lot more tiring on the upper body. [But] I think that wheelchair singles is going to look good on the grass.”
Wimbledon is offering a combined purse of £200,000, the highest of any of the Majors and an indication of the growing appeal of the sport to the public. Both Britons, though, are keen to get across the value of this inclusion to a wider audience.
Whiley: “I think for me it’s just sport completely changed my life from when I was a young girl. I was very insecure, didn’t have many friends. I was born with my disability. I was in and out of hospital constantly. When I got into tennis, I became confident, like, I really believed in something, which made me believe in myself. I know it can really change your life. For me it’s really important that young people do see that.”
Reid agreed, though unlike Whiley, he did not lose the use of his legs until 12: “I think there’s two things that would be really important to get out of this week. First one, if any kids or young people with disabilities get the opportunity to see us playing sport at a high level, then they can be inspired to do a similar thing, know there’s a lot in life you can achieve when you’re in a chair. At the same time I think it’s important that young people without disabilities can see that people in chairs are real people, can be incredible athletes… There’s still a little bit of stigma in some places about disability. As much as we can bring that barrier down, get that message across to young people, it’s really important.”
Men’s and women’s singles and doubles events will take place between 7 and 10 July on Courts 16 and 17.