I am 24-years-old and I have a Masters degree in writing, editing and publishing from the University of Queensland. Competitive ballroom dancing is what I live for, and Harry Styles is my favourite singer.
Sounds pretty normal and boring, right? I agree. But here’s what you won’t expect — I am profoundly deaf and my vision is limited to counting fingers at 20cm in front of me.
Since I was quite young, I’d sit for hours glued to the TV watching Novak Djokovic win grand slam after grand slam in quick succession.
I idolised him; I was his ultimate number one fan. Whenever he won a point, I’d pump my fist and yell, often to the exasperation of other family members. I believed Novak was tennis’ king — he ruled when it came to this sport. And it was my dream to meet him one day.
They say dreams do come true, but only if you put in the effort to make it happen.
So that’s exactly what I did — I booked myself a trip to Melbourne in January 2020, vowing that this was going to be the year I would meet my hero.
The weather was miserable in Melbourne — windy, wet and generally freezing. I caught a cold almost immediately, which dampened my excitement for the Australian Open.
Feeling pretty unwell, I thought how unfortunate it was that I had to get sick at such an important time — could my body not have picked another week of the year to bail on functioning at its optimum?
Still, luck was with me. I persisted with hassling Novak’s security team and was at long last granted a photograph with him. Not even the fact I felt like a train had ran over me at high speed could ruin that moment — I was positively, 100 per cent ecstatic.
The years of waiting and watching had paid off; it wasn’t just some wild goose chase.
The icing on the cake was a signed cap which Novak himself fetched from his bag and gifted to me. What an incredible experience and one I will never forget.
The media were there and someone shoved a microphone under my mouth, prompting me to express my emotions. But I was lost for words, utterly overcome with poorly-disguised happiness.
Could you blame me though? I’d just met one of sport’s greatest legends, I could hardly be expected to form coherent sentences.
Star-struck was a slight understatement — this had another layer to it than most people would have anticipated.
Due to my sensory loss, I can only watch tennis on TV — live games are not an option. So at the Open, my goal was to meet the players who mattered to me; a more intimate and memorable bucket list item than I could have hoped for.
Obviously, Novak was the priority but I also snagged a picture with Nick Kyrgios and Milos Raonic.
The previous year I had managed a selfie with Roger Federer in Perth, which had fuelled my desire to aim higher on the famous people spectrum.
The Facebook post that changed my life
Fast-forward to June 2021 and I am scrolling my Facebook feed at some random hour of the day, when I come across a post promoting blind tennis. I stopped scrolling and started thinking — could this actually work for me?
Never, not at any point in the last decade, did I imagine I could play tennis. It just did not seem realistic for someone who couldn’t see or hear. How on Earth could I be entertaining such an idea? You’re being silly Ness, I reprimanded myself.
But despite these doubts, my curiosity got the better of me and I found myself standing on a tennis court one Tuesday night, surrounded by other blind players.
On the drive to the tennis centre, I’d been arguing with myself about the ridiculousness of the whole thing — I’d almost convinced myself it was a cruel joke the internet was playing on me and there was no such thing in existence.
I was soon to find out how wrong I’d been to question my abilities so intensely.
I was warmly welcomed by Ian Ketteringham and Dan Bentel, my coaches. Although on this first evening it was extremely cold to be outdoors, I ended up surprising myself by having a lot of fun. The balls we used were very soft, contained a bell, and came in black and fluoro yellow.
Aside from these adjustments and the fact that the ball was allowed to bounce more than once before being hit, blind and low-vision (blv) tennis resembled sighted tennis. The same rules still applied, there were just these minor changes to account for the lack of vision. Naturally, the bell was of no use to my ears, so I channelled my energy elsewhere.
Several weeks later, I asked Ian for a private lesson as I had discovered that the one hour a week wasn’t satisfying my deep thirst for improvement. Something had become unleashed inside me — I wanted to learn, and thereafter to win.
It was new territory for both Ian and I, we would have to muddle along and figure out things as we went.
I began to genuinely look forward to my private classes each week — Ian and Dan were very encouraging and open-minded, which helped make me feel at ease and comfortable making mistakes because they were never critical.
Opening up an exciting future
The coaches seem to believe I have the potential to win games — if a professional is telling me this then it must hold some truth surely? I guess we’ll see.
The new year has some exciting things in store for me, I just need to be patient and everything will fall into place.
Putting on my journalist hat, I asked Dan and Ian on their thoughts about blind tennis and how they found it coaching me.
“There have been so many rewarding things about the program, but I think the most rewarding part would have to be that I’m bringing my favourite sport to a group of people for whom it was previously an impossibility,” Dan said.
“She (Ness) has really high expectations and is maybe a little too hard on herself at times, considering she’s only been playing five months.”
I don’t think I’m ever too hard on myself, so I found this speculation amusing. I’ve always been over-ambitious to a fault, but I find it’s a good trait to have because it means the bar is always set a tad higher than I can reach, which motivates me to keep climbing.
I can imagine that it must be daunting for these coaches, who have only ever been used to teaching sighted players, to confront a whole new side of the sport.
I would like to use this platform to extend my sincerest appreciation for Ian, Dan and the rest of the team that have made such an enormously positive impact on my life in a remarkably short period of time.
And unquestionably, the lives of the other blind players.
Sometimes a simple thank you doesn’t feel sufficient, and so I hope that by acknowledging publicly their determination to make tennis inclusive and accessible, these few special individuals will take a second to be proud of what they do.
In terms of the future, I know that with COVID-19 it’s hard to plan forwards these days; nothing can really be set in stone because of the delicacy of the pandemic.
However, this isn’t stopping me from dreaming about competing nationally and internationally in blind tennis.
The Paralympics is my main goal, but first I need to advocate for blind tennis to become a para sport, because currently it isn’t.
In the meantime, I will content myself with training six days a week and preparing my body and mind for whatever 2022 wants to hurl my way. I am so grateful that I stumbled across such a wonderful opportunity for self-exploration, it’s been a ride like no other and I couldn’t have predicted how powerful holding a racquet would be.
Maybe somewhere down the track, Novak will be brave enough to put a blindfold on and see how well he can return my serves.
ABC is partnering with International Day of People with Disability to celebrate the 4.4 million Australians with disability.