Anybody looking for a bit of inspiration at the start of 2021 could do much worse than look to Francesca Jones.
The 20-year-old Brit made a brilliant start to her first overseas Grand Slam qualifying event as she beat No 28 seed Monica Niculescu 6-3, 6-2 at the Australian Open in Dubai.
The result is made even more impressive as Jones was born with a rare genetic disorder, Ectrodactyly Ectodermal Dysplasia (EEC), which affects the fingers and toes. She has three fingers and a thumb on each hand, three toes on her right foot and four toes on her left. She also started life with webbed fingers and has less teeth than most people.
On the court the disorder impacts her grip of the racquet – she uses a light racquet and a small grip – and also her balance. Off the court it has meant she has had to undergo a number of operations.
But EEC has not held her back. Far from it.
"My syndrome is something that has really helped me become the person I am today. To a certain extent, I am happy that I have it because it has made me who I am," she told the Daily Telegraph in 2016.
I would not have started playing tennis as competitively as I do now or have the same motivation to do what I want to do in the future without it. I don’t mind being defined by it because it is something that I am actually proud of. I am not going to let it get me down in any way because it is not a negative. Anyone who has any type of syndrome, try your best whatever you are doing.
Jones has reached a career-high ranking of 241 and made the quarter-finals of four ITF events in the second half of 2021, including the Prague 125K where she beat former world No 13 Sabine Lisicki.
What is particularly striking about Jones is her maturity and determination, some of which is fuelled by being told she may never make it to the top.
"I have had many doctors tell me that I can’t do what I want to do and my motto in life is ‘the greatest thing in life is to do what people say you can’t do’,” she told Made in Leeds at the age of 16.
"If someone said I started tennis because of you or started football because of you, that would make a massive difference in my mind, that’s all I have ever wanted.
I don’t play tennis for the money, I play it because it’s a passion of mine and to help other people see that there is so much you can do in life.
Jones is competing in her third Grand Slam qualifying event, having lost in the first round of Wimbledon qualifying in 2018 and 2020 after getting wild cards.
Top shots from 2020 Australian Open
"She's not like the rest of the players,” her coach Albert Portas told Sky News in 2019. “Of course, she has to work specifically on some things, especially with the fingers and also taking care of her body is a bit different. But as you can see now she is top 300 and I think she has no limits. With her the limit will be on her mind but of course she is more impressive than the other players.”
Jones will face Croatian Jana Fett in the next round of qualifying. If she can beat her – which she did over three sets in Istanbul in October – then she will be one win away from making the main draw of the Australian Open.
That in itself would be a remarkable achievement given all she has faced in life already. But Jones, who moved to Barcelona at the age of nine to train at the same Sanchez-Casal academy attended by Andy Murray, has her sights set much higher.
“I want to prove everyone wrong,” she said in 2016.
If I can win Wimbledon, be a female Andy Murray, if not better, that would be my main goal.