Tennis legend Billie Jean King uses her fame to champion women on and off the court, and fight for equal pay, LGBTQ rights, and racial justice.
NEW YORK — There are no spectators at this one-of-a-kind U.S. Open, but there are mothers all over the place. You may have heard that three of them — Serena Williams, Victoria Azarenka and Tsvetana Pironkova — will be playing in a Grand Slam quarterfinal Wednesday, a first in the history of the sport.
You might not have heard about the fourth mother at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. She is 28, from Abingdon, England. She is ranked No. 5 in the world, winner of 11 majors. The last time she competed here, she won the Open wheelchair singles title. That was in 2015, a couple of years before Jordanne Whiley gave birth to her son, Jackson, now 2½, and then came back to the tour, becoming the first elite wheelchair athlete to compete as a mother.
“I feel like I’m a better tennis player now than I was before I gave birth,” Whiley told USA TODAY Sports after finishing a hitting session on the practice courts with her coach, Joshua Crossley. “I think it’s my mindset. Before tennis consumed my whole life. Now I am a tennis player and mom. Before anything else, I am a mom. I’m not as hard on myself when I lose, because it’s just a game of tennis. I love my tennis — I still want to win and be the best. But I don’t take it (so much) to heart.”
Two of the other Open mothers, Williams and Pironkova, face off at noon Wednesday in Arthur Ashe Stadium. Williams’ daughter, Olympia, turned 3 as the tournament began and the ESPN cameras have made her a mini-celebrity. Pironkova, a 32-year-old Bulgarian, is having the Slam of her life after not playing a single tournament since Wimbledon in 2017; she gave birth to her son, Alexander, the following spring.
Azarenka, 31, a former No. 1 and two-time major champion who plays Elise Mertens of Belgium on Wednesday night, had her son, Leo, almost four years ago. She is regaining her form at last — a process that wasn’t helped any by a custody battle with Leo’s father that forbade her to take the child out of the state of California, forcing her to miss a couple of major tournaments.
All three mothers have faced significant challenges in getting back to being pro tennis players. None, however, has had to cope with anything close to what Whiley has.
Whiley was born with osteogenesis imperfecta, an affliction commonly referred to as brittle bone disease. Her father, Keith, has the same condition. He became a noted wheelchair athlete, winning a bronze medal in the 100 meters in the Summer Paralympics in 1984. He had his daughter on the tennis courts when she was 3 years old.
“I grew up playing tennis with my dad,” Whiley said.
Whiley won Great Britain’s national championship at 14, but the journey to get there was full of pain and adversity. She suffered 26 breaks in her legs, and had 10 surgeries, rods and screws inserted to provide stability. Even though she is able to stand and walk limited distances, she spends the vast majority of her time in her chair, which turned her high school experience into a torture test. Whiley would regularly get mocked and bullied, kids ripping her bag from her and dropping it on the other side of the building.
“Tennis got me through it all,” she said.
Because of a rare genetic mutation, Whiley and her father are two of the few people whose disease only impacts the lower part of their bodies. Her shoulders are broad, her upper body strong — quality assets for a tennis player. She moved on to international competition, and excelled. Apart from her singles title in New York and two Paralympic bronze medals in doubles, she has won 10 major doubles titles, including the calendar Grand Slam with partner Yui Kamiji of Japan.
“From being one of the best junior players in the world to a Grand Slam champion, Jordanne has always brought a classical playing style, with classical strokes, that makes her a real pleasure to watch,” said Jason Harnett, head of wheelchair tennis for the USTA. “She is a feisty competitor with excellent speed and sneaky power.”
Whiley was ranked No. 3 in the world at singles when she stopped playing during her pregnancy. Thirteen weeks into it, she took a test that would tell her and her fiancé, Marc McCaroll, also a wheelchair tennis player, whether their baby had osteogenesis imperfecta. There was a 50 percent chance that he would, Whiley said.
The test came back negative.
The comeback process has been arduous at times. Whiley gained more weight than she wanted to while she was pregnant. It took her 13 months before she got back on the tour, and 18 months — November 2019 — before she felt truly fit.
Now she feels as ready as she has ever been. She tweaked her serve and refashioned her forehand. She has drawn the No. 1 seed, Diede de Groot of the Netherlands, in Thursday’s opening-round match.
“It’s obviously not my first choice, but you play who you’re drawn against and I’ve come close to her the last few times, so I’m excited to play her again,” Whiley said.
She has a clear idea of where her life is going from here. Her favorite tournament, naturally, is Wimbledon. Jackson played with Olympia, Williams’ daughter, last year at Wimbledon. Whiley wants the kids to play again, and wants to win a Wimbledon singles title, a feat that has eluded her. Then she wants to go to the Paralympics, and get on the podium for singles, preferably on the top step of it, and then retire.
Whiley, the fourth U.S. Open mother, pivoted in her wheelchair and smiled.
“That would work,” she said. “That would be a dream.”
Follow Wayne Coffey on Twitter @wr_coffey.
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