Three years ago, in April 2014 while on a charity trek in the Sahara Desert to raise money for RP Fighting Blindness, I met a tennis loving scientist.
As a sports fanatic myself, I took great enjoyment in speaking to my fellow visually impaired trekking companion about his love of the sport and told him about visually impaired tennis.
A few months after the trek I heard through a mutual friend the scientist had started playing visually impaired tennis and he had made quite an impact winning the men’s B2-B5 doubles and finishing runner-up in the men’s B3 singles at that year’s National Visually Impaired Tennis Championships.
Over the next three years after that conversation in the desert, the scientist would go on to successfully work out the formula required to become Great Britain’s first World number one ranked player in visually impaired tennis.
“It feels great, but it still feels incredibly surreal because playing normal tennis with friends and colleagues, i’m average. I’m not a great tennis player, I would never even have played county tennis if it wasn’t for bad eyesight so to be able to take part in our World Championships and win it, is ridiculous, a good ridiculous but still just crazy,” said Chris Baily.
The 39-year-old became GB’s first World number one ranked player in visually impaired tennis after winning the men’s B3 singles title at the first International Visually Impaired Tennis Tournament in Alfaz del Pi in Spain from 8th to 11th May.
The tournament featured 62 players from 12 countries including Great Britain, France, Spain, Ireland, Germany, Poland, Italy, Mexico, Singapore, Japan, South Korea and Australia.
Baily was one of six GB players competing in the tournament along with Brenda Cassell, Wendy Glasper, Nikhil Nair, Yvette Priestley and David Deas.
Baily from Uckfield in Sussex, won his two round-robin matches 4-0 against Australians Michael Fogarti and Adam Fayad. He was scheduled to play Italy’s Candido Alessandro in his second round-robin match, however Candido had to withdraw from the tournament due to injury.
The Brit won his semi-final against Ireland’s Willem Roode 6-3 before beating Poland’s Grzegorz Korpinski 2-4, 4-2, (10-5) in the final.
“I was a very good boy actually,” said Baily when asked how he celebrated.
“It wasn’t all about me, when I was on the court I had to do what I had to do to win my match the best I could but once I finished the match I knew that Brenda was playing in her final, so I went straight across to the adjacent court up in the stand to cheer her on and give her encouragement. Sadly, not enough encouragement as unfortunately she lost her match.
“I then watched all the other finals. Afterwards I phoned my wife to say I’d won. I had told her the match was on first and she text me saying how’s it going. I didn’t tell her but I got deafened by the screams of excitement! We got back to the hotel at four o’clock in the afternoon and I did have a couple of lagers to celebrate.”
The World number one highlighted how grateful he was of the incredible support from his wife and the Tennis Foundation.
“My wife’s been fantastic while I was away because she had to get special arrangements with her school as she teaches full time, to have slightly shorter days on a couple of occasions to pick the boys up because I’d usually do that but I’d obviously gone off for the week.
“She helped by sorting the childcare side of it to give me the possibility of going to this tournament because without that I wouldn’t have been able to go,” said Baily.
“Team GB were really lucky. The funding for the trip was paid for by the Tennis Foundation.
“We had Kirsty Thompson and Sam Perks with us and a coach, Louise.
“I spoke to members of other country’s teams and they had to pay out of their own pocket or do fundraising exercises just to arrange enough cash to come over.
“As a Great Britain team, we were incredibly lucky to have the Tennis Foundation pay for it all.”
The Brit was also keen to highlight the important role the team GB coach played in his success.
He said: “Louise was always looking for opportunities to get us on court or anywhere else that would be useful. Sometimes they were paddle courts. Paddle looks like a game that is a cross between squash and tennis.
“She was always trying to encourage us to get time on the real courts to familiarise ourselves with the contrast between the ball and the court. She was happy to talk tactics with us or anything else that we wanted to.
“Being a tennis nerd, I liked talking about the tactics, so her and I had some very useful conversations about the tactics for my matches and some debriefs after about how did it go? How did it feel?, “Did you do what I told you to?”, “No, sorry boss”.”
Baily highlighted how the tournament attracted a lot of interest from spectators.
“The main sports hall had about six rows of seating down one side of it, so that got quite busy. For the finals, we had two matches on at a time for the B2s and B3s and then when those were finished, they had the ladies B1 followed by the men’s B1 final and that probably had a couple of hundred people watching the B1 final,” said Baily.
“The men’s B1 final was superb. They had quite a few four or five stroke rallies which for a blind person hitting a moving object was insanely good.”
The Brit also revealed there has been a lot of media interest in the event, since the tournament finished he has been interviewed for BBC Radio Four’s In Touch Programme as well as appearing on Uckfield FM.
Baily explained how he started playing tennis at a young age and the influence his mum had on his love of the game.
He said: “I started playing normal tennis in my early to mid-teens. My mums always been a keen tennis player and still is, so I use to go down with her to the local tennis club where I grew up.
“I wouldn’t be coached because I was a teenager and I knew how to do it, so it was much safer and easier for my mum to hit a ball backwards and forwards and it’s quite interesting because my style of play is quite different to my mums but that’s where I started playing tennis and kept going from there really.”
The world number one went on to explain what made him decide to start playing Visually Impaired tennis.
“It’s because I knew my eyesight was starting to go. My plan in the summer of 2014 was to try out the game while I still had some eyesight thinking that there will be some differences and it will be easier to appreciate the best way to play the game and learn it with some eyesight. My eyesight got so bad that I couldn’t play normal tennis, I could then transition over easily to the blind tennis.
“Amanda Green and Odette Battarel are the two ladies I met when I first went to the National Tennis Centre that summer. They were so encouraging, saying you must come back and take part in our National Championships and go and get coaching badges and everything else.”
Since he started playing visually impaired tennis in 2014, Baily has won the men’s B2-B5 doubles for three consecutive years at the National Visually Impaired Tennis Championships and in 2016 he won the men’s B3 singles title.
He plays regularly at Sound Tennis Sussex, a visually impaired tennis club based in Brighton and Eastbourne.
Baily went on to reveal his personal ambitions in the sport and how popular he thinks visually impaired tennis can be in the future.
“My personal ambitions are just to maintain my ranking and status in the game, so that means when the reginal tournaments start again in July, having a good showing there and hopefully winning the nationals in October and retaining the title. Then hopefully qualify for the next World Championships and have the opportunity to defend my title,” said Baily.
“I believe VI Tennis is probably around about where wheelchair tennis was about 20 years ago so we just need to keep pushing forwards like those guys did and hopefully one day, maybe in 20 years-time, it will be a Paralympic Sport. One of the first stepping stones for that is having international tournaments, so we’ve done one, it went well but it wasn’t perfect. There are plenty of things we can learn from. We need to increase participation.”
Finally, Baily briefly explained how the rules differ in visually impaired tennis.
He said: “The main difference is you use a different ball. The ball is about twice as big as a regular tennis ball and its made from a spongy foam material, so because its bigger and made from sponge it travels through the air significantly slower than a regular tennis ball so you have a chance of seeing it if you have some level of eyesight. Also it has a bell / rattle device inside so it makes a noise either each time its hit by the racket or it hits the floor so you can hear where it is.
“The rackets we use are a little bit smaller than normal rackets so they reduce a little bit of power from the game. It’s a little bit more control and skill based rather than just being all about hitting the ball as hard as possible.
“The court is a little bit shorter. The other thing that is different, depending on your sight category you are allowed either two or three bounces before you have to hit the ball, so you have bit more time to locate the ball through sound and vision.”
Pictures courtesy of the Tennis Foundation, with thanks.