AS THE sun shone down in Cork on the first official day of summer, Ballinlough Tennis Club threw open its gates and welcomed vision-impaired players to begin their four-week taster sessions.
Players from as far away as Killarney travelled to the club to begin a new journey and to be introduced to a sport for life.
The sessions fall under the Tennis Ireland umbrella of the Enjoy Tennis program and were coordinated by the Munster regional development officer Liz Clifford and coached by myself.
Having discussed the start of the program a few months back, the problem of Covid restrictions delayed the start date. Being heavily conscious of the importance of a program like Enjoy Tennis and yet still being acutely aware of the Tennis Ireland and Government guidelines, a four-week plan was put in place and, under the advice and guidance from Cork Sports Partnership’s Kate Feeney, we were given the go-ahead for a June 1 start.
And what a way to start the month. Having personally called each player the night before to discuss the following day’s session and what their expectations might be, on arrival it was like welcoming some old friends.
The air of excitement, and perhaps a little apprehension, was evident. As with any session, my pre-laid class plan was set, but as this was my first visually impaired class, I have to say I was feeling a little nervous too.
Tennis for the visually impaired has not been run in Cork for some time, so being the coach to welcome back such a beneficial program was a pleasure.
With the go-getter attitude of the dedicated Kate Feeney, a media advertising campaign was rolled out, and with the aid of the NCBI helping to get the word out and reviewing potential participants, six players were signed up.
The NCBI programs are there to support, encourage, and empower people who have a vision impairment, in all aspects of their life. Sport has become hugely popular, with many programs now available.
Vision Sports Ireland is the national governing body for sport and leisure activities for the vision impaired in Ireland, with football, golf, and athletics proving popular.
The idea of blind tennis started in 1984 in Japan. A blind student named Miyoshi Takei, together with his PE instructor, came up with the blueprint to adapt the game for those who were visually impaired or blind.
The invention of a special ball that makes a distinct sound when it is hit and bounces, has made tennis for the blind a reality. The rules are essentially the same as regular tennis, except for the use of shorter rackets of 25” on smaller courts and more than one bounce allowed. Before the start of any point, players must say: ‘Ready?’ and ‘Yes’, then the point can begin.
Progressing on from 1984, VI tennis in its present form started in Japan in 1990. Miyoshi Takei was hopeful that it would eventually become a Paralympic event and its inclusion would allow blind players to travel internationally and broaden their horizons.
Speaking to player Pam O’Connor who travelled the long distance from Killarney for Tuesday’s session, she explained that she loves activity and being able to be with others and connect through sport.
After the session I asked her how she felt and what worked well for her.
“I loved the detailed way you explained things, it made the step-by-step process very easy to follow,” she said. “I loved the way you broke everything down and your descriptions helped me to go in stages and feel comfortable.”
Pam has central vision and has difficulty with her peripheral sight. She also finds this can affect her balance and has the ambition to climb Carrauntoohil. This was Pam’s first on-court session. Over lockdown, she has been tuning into online sessions with Dublin-based regional development officer Annmarie Breen.
Coaching this session was the most enjoyable hour of my week.
The group, including a player who previously played Grade 4, laughed from start to finish. The camaraderie was admirable with cheering when one pupil got closer to the target than another.
Along with my volunteers, Liz Clifford, Wayne Fitzpatrick, and Margaret Shine, we all felt a surge of satisfaction after the class. So what was it that made it so good?
We laughed, we played, we achieved, and yes, we enjoyed tennis.