Soundball Tennis ready for its grand slam debut

Posted 1 year ago by Alex Jacobs
Blind and low vision reigning Australian national champions Courtney Webeck and Mick Leigh. [Source: Supplied]
Blind and low vision reigning Australian national champions Courtney Webeck and Mick Leigh. [Source: Supplied]

Featuring smaller courts and a ball that makes noise as it bounces, blind and low vision tennis is set for a big win on one of the grandest stages – the 2023 Australian Open.

Fresh from holding its first-ever Australian national championships in 2022, the sport – also referred to as Soundball Tennis – will be a feature piece of the Australian Open, one of the four major grand slam competitions in the world.

Blind Sports Australia (BSA) Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Matthew Clayton, said it will be a great opportunity to raise the profile of blind sports as a whole.

“The sport of blind and low vision tennis has been really growing in the country over the last few years so it’s a great opportunity for us to showcase it at the Australian Open,” said Mr Clayton.

“The buzz the Open creates around tennis across the country, for so many versions of tennis, we’re really excited to be a part of that.

“We want to raise the profile of blind and low vision tennis and particularly increase opportunities in regional areas of the country where there may not be programs in place.

“We hope that this will inspire some tennis clubs in different parts of the country to get involved and open up that opportunity.”

The Australian Open has established itself as one of the most inclusive sporting events thanks to the popularity of former world No.1 Quad Wheelchair Tennis player and 23-time Grand Slam champion, Dylan Alcott. 

This year, the tournament has expanded to include an All Abilities Day on Tuesday 24 January, providing on-court opportunities for participants in Tennis Australia’s disability pathways program.

Alongside the Soundball Tennis exhibition games on Monday 23 January, there will also be the inaugural international Persons with Intellectual Impairment (PWII) and Deaf and Hard of Hearing Tournaments from Friday 27 to Sunday 29 January.

Mr Clayton hopes to see blind and low vision tennis consistently on the same stage and to one day emulate the popularity of wheelchair tennis.

“We’d love to get to that point. Obviously, it’s quite a path to get to that point – wheelchair tennis has been established for some time – but we’d love to aim for that level for blind and low vision tennis,” said Mr Clayton.

“Last year we had our first Australian National Championships and we were able to get everyone together, and we had State Championships in each of the mainland capital cities which is the first time that’s happened. 

“To be able to get to that point we’ve had a level of growth where we know there’s interest for the sport, both here and internationally.”

Mr Clayton said BSA wants to provide increased representation for people with disability. 

Research conducted by BSA, in conjunction with Mastercard Tennis in a New Light, revealed that 57 percent of the population said there should be more representation for people with disability in sport.

In addition, 77 percent of people who live with a disability said travel, lack of information and lack of specialist equipment impacted their ability to participate in sports, while 52 percent said they were unaware of any athletes with the same disability.

“There is an underrepresentation in terms of people being able to find and experience sports from a disability perspective,” said Mr Clayton.

“A lot of the time that is about opportunity and people not knowing there are opportunities to play accessible sports out there. 

“In Australia, we have about 24 different sports that people can now actually take part in if they’re blind or low vision, so there are so many opportunities out there.

“If they are aware of that opportunity we certainly believe that is a great chance for people to get out and participate in a sport they’re interested in.”

Blind and low vision tennis provides new opportunities

Played on smaller courts – often indoors – and with unique rules, blind and low vision tennis is a highly accessible sport and it has attracted a wide variety of participants, including new players with low vision or blindness and existing tennis players who have experienced vision loss.

Two players taking to the court at the Australian Open are reigning national champions Courtney Webeck and Mick Leigh.

Mr Leigh’s vision and hearing started deteriorating when he was a teenager and the now 44-year-old lives with tunnel vision. He said the sport has helped give him a newfound sense of independence and identity.

“When I get out on the court, I don’t really focus on anything else, I focus on the game and go as hard as I can and give it everything I have,” explained Mr Leigh.

“Through the blind sports community, I was asked if I wanted to play a bit of tennis, then it rolled on from there. Tennis has given me a new sense of independence and an identity that I didn’t once have.”

Depending on the player’s level of vision, blind and low vision tennis can be adapted to the player. For example, a player is allowed either one, two or three bounces before they have to hit the ball over the net.

Meanwhile, the ball constantly makes noise as it moves or bounces to indicate where it is.

For 19-year-old Ms Webeck, the challenge of blind and low vision tennis is as serious as it gets.

“You get to push yourself in many ways when playing tennis, as it’s a physically, mentally and technically challenging sport,” said Ms Webeck.

“I feel on top of the world when I hit a good shot, whether it’s a forehand or backhand, cross-court or down the line, but for me, tennis means more than winning!”

Accessibility is what Mr Clayton views as the sport’s strength, he said most participants are just out there having a hit with friends – many of which have no visual impairments. 

Blind and low vision tennis can be adapted to suit any level of vision to create an even playing field and it does not rely on larger numbers of people like many team sports do.

“Socialisation is a massive part of the sport and rich motivation for most of us to get involved,” said Mr Clayton.

“There’s only a very thin edge where we have people who just play for the really serious side of things, but even then for most of the elite athletes socialisation is still a really important part of it.

“There may only be one or two other people in the city or town who is interested in playing tennis, but they can still successfully play on a regular basis as opposed to having to travel or become part of a larger team.”

You can find more information on blind and low vision tennis on the BSA website, and the Australian Open exhibition games will take place on Monday 23 January.