SHE was the girl all of Wimbledon was talking about.
Twelve months ago, Francesca Jones, from Oxenhope, near Haworth, walked on court to play her first ever match at the All England Club. Even the most ardent of tennis fans had never heard of her. But that was about to change.
For the 16-year-old has a rare condition called Ectrodactyly Ectodermal Dysplasia, or EEC syndrome, which can cause a person to be born with one or more of their fingers and toes missing.
In her case she has just four fingers on her right hand – the hand that holds her tennis racket – together with three toes on one foot and four on the other.
She won her match that day, a first-round tie in the girls’ singles event at Junior Wimbledon, and The Yorkshire Post told the remarkable story of how she was determined to conquer her syndrome and make it as a tennis player.
Within 24 hours she found herself in centre of the world’s media spotlight.
Now she is back at the All England Club as a serious contender for the Junior Wimbledon crown.
The past year has seen her soar up the rankings to number 46 in the world, not bad considering that at 16 she is almost two years younger than many of her competitors on the girls’ tennis circuit.
She has also become an integral part of the Great Britain junior team.
There’s a long way to go before she can think about turning professional and making a serious living out of the game, but the Yorkshire teenager is more than heading in the right direction.
“It was quite unreal,” she said, describing what happened after winning her match in Wimbledon 2016. “Spending two hours in the media centre the day afterwards was definitely a new experience for me. I’d never really given any interviews before. But I quite enjoyed it. It’s nice that people wanted to find out more about me.
“Since then I’ve just been keeping on trying to improve, working hard. My forehand is even more dominant, probably the best forehand in the juniors now. My serve has improved. I’ve matured a bit more as a person, and my game has matured as well. That’s natural. If you’re training every day you expect to carry on developing, not to go backwards.”
She is scheduled to play her opening singles match at this year’s Junior Wimbledon later today against Xin Yu Wang of China.
Proud parents Simon and Adele will both be courtside along with her brother, grandmother and it’s safe to say plenty of tennis fans who remember her story from last year and drew inspiration from it.
“I’ve always said that if it wasn’t for my syndrome I wouldn’t be here doing this at all,” she added. “It made me the person I am. I had a lot of operations when I was younger and went through so much. It felt like I wanted to prove a point. And I am proving a point by being here. I’m proof that you can do anything if you put your mind to it.
“I had opportunities to do well here last year and felt I could have reached the semi-finals. There’s always opportunities. It’s not that my tennis isn’t good enough, it’s just whether I take those opportunities on the day. If I do, then I believe I can beat anyone.”
Andy Murray will also be back in action today playing France’s Benoit Paire in the fourth round. He made a surprise appearance in the Royal Box on Saturday to a rapturous round of applause by the crowd, who were celebrating the Olympians and Paralympians invited to watch the action.
What are the symptoms of EEC?
Ectrodactyly Ectodermal Dysplasia syndrome is a rare genetic disorder.
Symptoms can vary greatly from one person to another and range from mild to severe, but most commonly include missing or irregular fingers and/or toes.
EEC syndrome affects males and females in equal numbers and the exact incidence and prevalence of the disorder in the general population is unknown.
It is estimated that greater than 90 per cent of cases of EEC syndrome are caused by mutations in the TP63 gene.