The eight-person Irish Blind Tennis team is in Alicante, Spain this week for the International Blind Tennis Tournament – itself a first for the nascent sport.
And if Blind Tennis seems an unlikely sport to the uninitiated, that’s exactly how it sounded when first pitched to Vision Sports Ireland (VSI) last year.
Roisin Dermody was then a VSI board member. Little did she know she’d soon be hooked by the sport and a member of the inaugural national team.
“When Liam (O’Donohoe) from Tennis Ireland approached us and said, ‘OK, blind tennis?’, I was there going, ‘What drugs is this man on?’ I just couldn’t get my head around it. I could not get my head around it,” emphasises Dermody, who has competed as a swimmer, cyclist and trampolinist.
“I never dreamt of tennis being a possibility because even when I had better sight than I do now, I was still too vision-impaired to play what I would consider sighted tennis.
“It wasn’t until I had a racket in my hands and I hit that first ball that I went, ‘Ah, I get it’. When the racket connected with that ball, I got butterflies in my tummy and I knew I was going to be freaking hooked.”
As the first international event, every player was assessed and divided into Paralympic sight classes – from B1, for those with no vision, to B3, for those with a less severe visual impairment.
Amid the hubbub of the testing, Dermody describes the process as “drugs-testing level of stuff going on here”.
The Carlow-native is in the B2 category, for visually impaired athletes who aren’t fully blind, but has a deteriorating condition.
“The B1 competition started before I got tested and they basically told me to go home and practice as a B1, because when I get reviewed in a year I’ll be in the B1 category.
“I’m going to be playing at a disadvantage this week but that’s how the cookie crumbles this time.
“It’s about more than tennis, though. It’s a learning experience for all of us.”
Like Dermody, David Nason competes in the B2 category. The Dubliner played tennis as a child but had to give up the sport as he got older.
“Even as a kid, I’d bad short-sightedness but when I was a teenager, they realised it was something else. They diagnosed the condition RP (retinitis pigmentosa), which degenerates,” recalls Nason.
“It was really when I got into my twenties that it got much more significant to the point where I realised I wasn’t really able to play football with the lads anymore.
“I was always out and about playing as a kid, hitting a ball when Wimbledon was on or whatever else. When you lose that, you can be a bit crazy that you’re not getting out.
“It’s great to have that chance again to enjoy sport and get the exercise. Socially, it’s lovely as well.”
The Irish athletes are novices among some of their international counterparts. The game originated in Japan in the 1980s and some of their players have two decades’ worth of experience on court.
The sport is adapted with a foam tennis ball that emits sound, and raised tactile lines can be used as navigational markers on the shortened court. The ball can bounce up to three times before it must be returned.
Nason can find it tough to locate the ball using those audible clues but the international competition has provided some inspiration.
“If you’re playing tennis, you’re tracking the ball from when it leaves your opponent’s racket, whereas I’m waiting for the ball to bounce. Then, and only then, can I react.
“You’re really concentrating for where you hear that bounce, and then if you hear the second bounce, that could give you a bit of the trajectory of the ball. A lot of the time you think you know where the ball is, you swipe for it and you miss it by an inch.
“But we’re out on the courts and seeing some of the other people in the same category, who’ve been playing five or six years, having little rallies. It gives you hope.”
Most of the team have some sporting background.
Willem ‘Wally’ Roode is a South African native who represents Ireland in golf and tennis in the B3 category. He’s married to seven-time Paralympian Catherine Walsh – a relationship which brought him to Dublin two decades ago.
As a child at a school for the visually impaired in his homeland, he sampled Greco-Roman wrestling, swimming, athletics and soccer. It was only natural he’d continue to try new sports as opportunities emerged.
“When I came to Ireland I picked up golf,” remembers Roode. “I always wanted to play golf but I could never really find a way to play... I would never be able to play at all if it wasn’t for an organisation like the International Blind Golf Association that made it accessible.
“Then tennis came on board, and I always wanted to play tennis but never could because the ball was always too fast. For me, it was natural to go into that type of thing. I’ll always do sport until I can’t, when my legs give up, or something... But even then, I’ll find something else to do.”
Roode soon has to run for his sight classification as preparations for play move into full swing.
But far from being the be-all and end-all, this tournament is only the beginning for a sport in its infancy, as it spreads west from Dublin and Belfast over the coming months and into Galway, Sligo, Navan and Cork.
It’s part of the wider Enjoy Tennis programme, which also caters for players who have an intellectual disability, have suffered a stroke or are wheelchair-bound.