Grassroots to Glory - Jordanne Whiley
Whiley is set to reprise her starring role in Tokyo.
Here is the plot: a young Brummie upstart, brimming with potential, takes over the family business and becomes a force to be reckoned with.
Word soon spreads - first across the UK, then further afield - that the prodigy is out to crush the competition and assert worldwide dominance, until their presence is felt before they even enter a room. Or a court. Welcome to the new season of Peaky Paralympians, coming soon to Channel 4. Jordanne Whiley – who you might recognise from her award-winning turn on summer hit Wimbledon – is set to reprise her starring role in Tokyo.
There were no confrontations between brothers, or even arguments over who was going to do the accounting, when Whiley & Daughter was incorporated in the mid-1990s. After all, Jordanne, an only child, was just three when she was handed the firm’s weapon of choice: a tennis racket.
“I was out in Israel with my dad,” recalled Jordanne, now 29. “And I had a broken leg, so I couldn’t really do much.
“One of his friends gave me a tennis racket, a tiny one. I was hitting with it at the tournament, and I got a little trophy, because I was the youngest person they’d ever seen play tennis. I think everyone was really amazed and just loving it. Everyone was feeding me balls, and I was playing every day all day.”
The tot’s dad, Keith Whiley, competed in athletics at the 1984 Stoke Mandeville & New York Paralympics, taking bronze in the 100m L3, and also played on the wheelchair tennis circuit.
They share a diagnosis of osteogenesis imperfecta (OI), more commonly known as brittle bone disease—Jordanne reckons the injury in Israel was one of 26 times she broke her legs as a child.
Keith was delighted to have something athletic in common with his daughter, and enrolled her in lessons at Billesley Tennis Centre almost as soon as they got home.
“He found me my first coach,” said Jordanne, “and he was my coach for a little while when I was younger. He paid for all of my lessons, he used to book all of my flights, he would literally do absolutely everything for me. My mum [Julie] retired very early from work so that she could take care of me as a baby, but also to travel the world with me when I was still underage. My parents sacrificed a lot for me when I was younger, so I’m really happy it paid off.”
Keith is still, said Jordanne, “my biggest critic. And mum was pretty much like my taxi, she followed me everywhere. It was just me, mum and dad so they were my support network.”
She soon graduated to camps run by the British Tennis Foundation, where she was talented spotted around age 12. She knew she’d been improving with every year.
“I enjoyed it,” she said, “I was pretty good at it, and people were telling me that I could make it. But I don’t think at that time I realised just how good I could be.”
Others, however, definitely did. Annual adventures to an international camp in Holland soon followed, “the highlight of my junior years,” said Jordanne, “because all the juniors from all over the world would get together for a week, and we would train and we would hang out and socialise.”
Jordanne is still close with the Dutch team from those formative summers, a time, said the fiercely independent athlete, that “set me up for life.
The fact that I could navigate through an airport by the time I was 15, 16, was a great thing. There are some juniors now in our team who are about 18 who still don’t how to do that. I think that freedom really helped.”
She still speaks decent Dutch. She was with her “childhood sweetheart”, a Netherlands native and fellow player, for two years in her early teens. He’s a lawyer now. She’s also picked up conversational French from her time on the circuit, and Japanese from long-time doubles partner Yui Kamiji, with whom she won a fifth Wimbledon title in July—her 13th Grand Slam crown.
Jordanne was just 14 when she became Britain’s youngest-ever national women’s singles champion in 2007. And if GSCEs aren’t stressful enough, try revising for them at the same time as attempting to qualify for the Paralympic Games. She succeeded at both, making her Games debut at Beijing 2008, winning World Cup team silver with the senior British team and cracking world senior top-ten a year later. Her parents’ sacrifices were finally paying off. Whiley soon became one of over 1000 full-time athletes funded by the National Lottery through UK Sport’s World Class Programme, a “big relief” that allowed her to train full time and access world class facilities, technology, coaching and support teams.
At London 2012, Jordanne and Lucy Shuker became the first British women to win a Paralympic medal – a bronze – in their sport. Two years later, she became the first Brit to win a Calendar Grand Slam.
That night, Yui scrawled “history-maker” across her best friend’s arm in Japanese—Jordanne inked it there permanently.
A first Grand Slam singles title followed at the US Open in 2015, then another Paralympic bronze in Rio. Jordanne now has 29 more titles – 59 – than six seasons of Peaky Blinders has episodes.
The firm grew alongside her trophy collection. In 2017, Jordanne revealed she won her Wimbledon title while 11 weeks pregnant with son Jackson, who she shares with fellow wheelchair tennis Paralympian and coach Marc McCarroll, who proposed at SW19 in 2019.
Jackson hasn’t yet celebrated his fourth birthday, but he plays football, swims, and told Jordanne he was keen to try gymnastics after watching the Olympics.
Oh, and there’s tennis.
“His hand-eye coordination is unbelievable,” effused his proud parent.
“I’ll let him make his own decisions, but at the moment tennis is definitely his favourite. He absolutely loves his lessons. I have to literally drag him off the court.”
Jordanne would be thrilled if son is to follow mum – perhaps a mixed doubles partnership with Serena Williams’ three-year-old daughter Olympia is in his future – but she wants to one-up her own parent. Keith has long joked about his daughter besting his Paralympic bronze, but Jordanne is serious about making it happen. She’s given herself one final chance, making no secret of the fact that she’s planning for Tokyo to be her last Paralympics.
She qualified as a mortgage advisor during lockdown, and has since specialised in working with athletes who will appreciate the out-of-office email message she’ll soon need to set: I’m currently in Tokyo trying to become a Paralympic champion…
“I’ve been playing tennis my whole life,” said Jordanne. “The only thing I ever really wanted was the gold medal. I seemed to have achieved pretty much everything else.”
She adds: “It’s been a lifetime goal, but now I also feel like my massive why is my son, to make him proud. Like, look what my mum did. And if he had a gold medal he could take it into show-and-tell or something.”
Sounds like a spin-off series is already well in the pipeline.
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