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Blind and low-vision tennis now the fastest-growing blind sport in Australia

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Kala Petronijevic blames Novak Djokovic for her obsession with tennis.

She was born the same summer that the Serb dominated his opposition on his way to a second Australian Open win, and has been drawn to the sport for as long as she can remember.

When she was five, her parents asked what sport she wanted to play, and for Kala there was only one answer. 

Blind in her right eye, with minimal vision in her left eye, the now 13-year-old plays blind and low-vision (BLV) tennis, a variant that makes it easier for people with vision impairments to compete.

"My poor parents didn't know where to start," Kala said.

"Luckily my mum came across blind tennis."

A young girl on a tennis court
Kala Petronijevic discovered a passion in blind tennis.(ABC News: Dimitria Panagiotaros)

When Kala was younger, the sport struggled to get a foothold in Australia, meaning long commutes to a tennis club that would support it.

"The problem was that I was the only child among the group of blind and visually impaired adults," she said.

But now things have changed.

BLV tennis has exploded in popularity, with clubs supporting the sport popping up across the country.

Kala now eagerly looks forward to Tuesday afternoons at a BLV tennis program at a club closer to her home, when she can take to the court with her friends for a hit.

"To me, blind tennis is more than just a game, it means sharing jokes and having fun with my friends," she said.

The growth of blind and low-vision tennis

BLV tennis has been around for decades and is played with a special ball that rattles when it bounces and allows vision-impaired players to hear its location. 

But in recent years BLV tennis in Australia has blown past all expectations to become the fastest-growing blind sport in the country.

In the years before the pandemic, there were just two BLV tennis clubs in the entire country.

There are now more than 20, with hopes of opening one in the Northern Territory later this year and completing a goal of having a club in every state and territory.

Australia hosted its first national championship in 2022, and a tour circuit has now sprung up on the calendar with state tournaments hosting dozens of BLV tennis players.

YOUTUBEBlind tennis is developing rapidly across Australia

Blind Sports Australia has been one of the biggest campaigners for BLV tennis, and chief executive Matthew Clayton said the sport was giving people an opportunity to take part, no matter their level of disability.

"It's something I can pick up and play and just do with friends, even if they're not someone with a vision impairment, they can still play with other friends using that same ball," Mr Clayton said.

"Just being able to have that casual hit, for most of us that's what sports is about, being able to play with friends."

But increasingly, it's the matches beyond the local park that are drawing people in.

"The fact that we now have some really good pathways with state [championships], it was something that we didn't have in the past," Mr Clayton said.

"Just having that pathway makes a massive difference for people, to know now that [they] can pursue that as far as [they] want."

The world-beaters of Australian blind tennis

Grace Hobbs was playing BLV tennis in a social group in Sydney when she heard an international tournament was going to be held in England.

She began to ramp up her training in the hopes of representing Australia's inaugural team at the International Blind Sport Federation World Games in Birmingham.

The training paid off.

Ms Hobbs blew past the competition, going 10-0 in her matches to claim gold in both the singles and doubles competition. 

A tennis player sitting on the sidelines of a court
Grace Hobbs took home gold in the B4/B5 Womens singles at the IBSA World Championships in 2023.(Supplied)

"It was a very amazing environment to be in … it was nervousness, excitement, focus, competitive all in one," Ms Hobbs said.

"It's almost like the country's behind you and want to do your best."

Thanks in part to Grace, the team dominated the medal tally, walking away with five gold, two silver and two bronze medals.

Steve Manley served as a team coach on the trip.

He said despite the success, there's still room for the sport to grow and bring in new fans.

"To this day, I've got tennis coaches that I talk to that don't even know it exists," Mr Manley said.

A group of blind tennis players and coaches
The Australian tennis team topped the medal count at the IBSA World Games in 2023.(Supplied: Tennis Australia)

For Manley, representation and awareness are the keys.

"It comes back to that fact, if you can see someone doing it, you know you can do it yourself," Manley said.

"People that enjoy tennis at the Australian Open and probably think they can't play it — they're going to learn that they can play it and there's pathways all the way up to representing Australia."

A day on the courts at the Australian Open

As part of the Australian Open's All Abilities Day on January 23, both Kala and Grace will be part of a contingent of BLV players playing in showcases at Melbourne Park.

Open for the public to come and try the sport, it's hoped even more Australians will become aware of BLV tennis.

Grace Hobbs, who has seen the game grow from small origins, wants more Australians to get involved.

"Come and try it, if you've never touched a racquet before that's okay," she said.

"You might come across someone who has the same vision impairment as you and might be able to share experiences."

A group of kids at the entrance of Melbourne Park
The Australian Open will host a BLV tennis session featuring junior players from around Victoria including Kala.(Supplied: Tennis Australia)

And the opportunity to play on the same courts that her hero Novak Djokovic will be playing on is not something lost on Kala.

"I guess when one door closes, another door opens," Kala said.

"Because of blind tennis, I get to meet some great people and experience things that other children and people dream of. "


Source: ABC

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