Belfast tennis club serves up perfect set for visually impaired
Wimbledon may be over but blind tennis is back for another season at Windsor Lawn Tennis Club in south Belfast. The initiative, which is the brainchild of Disability Sport NI, was intended to be a six-week programme last summer, but due to its success has lasted for nearly a year.
Judith Brennan who works on the active clubs programme with Disability Sport NI, has a background in badminton.
She said it has been so popular that the club now offers an advanced group as well as a beginners group.
"Overall there are 14 participants. The advanced session has the majority because the beginners group we have only opened up in the last four or five months," she told the Belfast Telegraph.
Visually impaired tennis works similarly to full-sighted tennis but the court is slightly shorter and not as wide.
Bells are placed inside tennis balls which are larger and lighter than usual. The bell enables players to sense where the ball is, so that they can make a swing.
However, unlike in mainstream tennis matches, the ball is allowed to bounce two or three times depending on sight level, but the point system is the same.
Windsor Lawn Tennis Club is the only club in Northern Ireland that runs classes for the visually impaired.
Judith said participants come from across the province to take part. "We have at least four participants that have no sight whatsoever and five guide dog users. The dogs can come along and sit at the side and watch," she said.
"There is definitely a lot of interest, Windsor is the only club in Northern Ireland that runs this kind of programme, so we have people coming from Randalstown, Lurgan and Ballymena as well as Belfast to take part."
Judith said she hopes that it may become a competitive sport in Northern Ireland.
She said: "There is a blind tennis club in Dublin and they have been running for about two years. So we are hoping to compete against them in the not too distant future. Then hopefully we will go across the water to England and Scotland and start competing there."
Team member Debbie Shaw (50) has lived with partial vision for her entire life.
Speaking about what the tennis club has done for her, Debbie said: "I was born with albinism, so I have had poor vision from the beginning, but over the past few years my eyesight has deteriorated to a point were I found it harder to do everyday general things. I would have stayed in the house quite a lot.
"Then Judith contacted me about the blind tennis up here in Windsor and I decided that I was going to give it a go. I only started in May and I am absolutely loving it.
"It has given me a new lease of life. I have met new friends while learning new skills and playing a sport that I was never able to play before. If we can get funding we are going to play against the South, so hopefully we are going to have a tournament with them.
"I would recommend it to anyone who is visually impaired or registered blind; contact Judith, because there are so many sports out there, there is something for everyone."
Windsor Lawn Tennis Club is currently fundraising to make its facilities accessible for the disabled, so that more sporting events can be held.
Madeline Gilmore, who is Club Captain this year and a retired optometrist, said: "We have held a number of fundraisers in the past and so far we have put in a disabled toilet but we are hoping to put in a lift, so that wheelchair users can also avail of the function room on the first floor.
"We have estimated that we need around £30,000 but the council has offered to match us pound for pound, so we need to raise £15,000 ourselves. We have raised £6,000, so our total sits at £12,000 so far."