Tennis wheelchair champ: Becoming a mom made me a better player

Jordanne Whiley joins a record number of moms competing at the U.S. Open.
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September 8, 2020 - Jordanne Whiley practices during the 2020 US Open.Mike Lawrence / USTA

It's the "Year of Moms" at the U.S. Open: Mothers Serena Williams and Tsvetana Pironkova played against each other in the quarterfinals on Wednesday afternoon. Williams advanced to the semi-finals, where she'll play against mother and two-time major champion Victoria Azarenka.

One other mom will be playing on Thursday afternoon: British player Jordanne Whiley will be the first known wheelchair tennis player and mother to compete at the tournament, making history.

"I've just been training every day and preparing, looking forward to when I'll actually play a match," said Whiley, who arrived in New York last Saturday and quarantined until she was tested for COVID-19. "It's so much better now that I'm here. When you're at home and you're just getting told about protocols and what things are going to be different, it all sounds a little bit scary, but now that I'm here it's working out pretty well."

Jordanne Whiley practices during the 2020 US Open.Mike Lawrence / USTA

On Thursday, Whiley will compete against defending champion Diede De Groot.

This is Whiley's first time competing at the U.S. Open since 2015, when she was the first British wheelchair player to win the tournament. In January 2018, she gave birth to her son, Jackson, and returned to tennis in the spring of 2019.

"It's just so nice to see that more and more mums are coming back to the tour, and kind of just showing that it is possible to have children and come back to an elite sport," Whiley told TODAY Parents Wednesday. "I'm the first woman in wheelchair tennis who's done that, so I didn't have anyone else in the tour who is also a mum. It's really nice to see so many at the U.S. Open this year."

Jackson, along with Whiley's fiance Marc McCarroll, will be watching remotely.

"(Jackson) came to a few tournaments with me last year, including Wimbledon, and the plan was to bring him out to more tournaments this year but obviously that's not going to happen," said Whiley. "It's definitely a lot more stressful when he is here, just because he is a 2-and-a-half-year-old."

Whiley and her son Jackson spend plenty of time playing sports together.Jordanne Whiley

Whiley said that becoming a mother has made her a better player than ever before.

"Since I've become a mum, I've been playing the best tennis of my life," Whiley said. "I'm in really good shape, physically and mentally. If you speak to other mums that have come back into sport, they have a completely different mindset, because they're no longer just a tennis player or just a sports person, they're also a mum, which is like above everything else. It just makes you a little more calm."

Whiley has a rare version of osteogenesis imperfecta, commonly known as brittle bone disease, that only affects the lower half of her body. Her father, Keith Whiley, also a notable wheelchair athlete, has the same disease.

Whiley said that she had her son tested for the disease, which is genetic, when she was 13 weeks pregnant, but he tested negative for the illness.

"It's a 50% chance (of having the disease), for all of my children," Whiley explained, adding that she does hope to have at least one more child in the future. "He didn't have it. We've been very lucky."

When not competing, Whiley and her son spend plenty of time playing sports together.

"He's a proper sports person already," Whiley said. "He loves tennis, he loves football, he loves anything to do with being sporty. He absolutely loves it. It's almost like he was born that way. Even when he was 6 months old he was playing catch, rolling the ball back and forth, and it developed into catch and tennis. It runs in the genes, I think."

Whiley told TODAY that in addition to the tournament circuit, she plans to play in the Tokyo Paralympic Games, which were originally scheduled for summer 2020 and were then delayed due to the coronavirus. However, the rescheduled 2021 Games will be her final appearance at the competition.

Whiley said that the coming Tokyo Paralympic Games will be her final time at the competition. Darren Carroll / USTA

"Tokyo will be my last Paralympic Games, and then (my fiancee and I) are going to get married," she said.

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