How she does it: Charlotte Fairbank, professional wheelchair tennis player

I have a very difficult relationship with Novak Djokovic. On the one hand, I realise that he is an exceptional tennis player having been listed in the world’s top three players for many years and claiming countless trophies. On the other hand, I find him exceptionally irritating. Perhaps it’s the pathological levels of self discipline or his inexhaustible raw talent. Or maybe it’s the way he reminds us mere mortals the depth of his superiority every time he celebrates a point (excessively in my opinion). Regardless of any logical reasoning, I just don’t like the guy. 

Or I didn’t until recently when I watched a three minute YouTube video and my fickle mind was changed. This particular clip was taken at the Australian Open in 2017 but rather than facing Nadal or Federer, Djokovic’s opponent was wheelchair tennis champion Dylan Alcott and just like Alcott, Djokovic was competing in a wheelchair. Suddenly the Serbian looked like a backup performer for Bambi on Ice. While Alcott pivoted on a dime to return Djokovic’s wayway forehands, the Wimbledon champion was reduced to asking, “How can I hold my racket and also move around?” In those three minutes Djokovic conveyed the skill and determination wheelchair tennis players need to possess beyond their able bodied counterparts and in the process ingratiated himself to his most sceptical critic.

There are hopes to represent France in the 2024 games and if that wasn’t enough, this summer she gained the latest qualification needed to fulfil her hopes of becoming a solicitor

Unlike the world number one, Charlotte Fairbank was less willing to give wheelchair tennis a try. In fact, when a family friend suggested she would enjoy playing, she “point-blank refused.” Back then the idea of taking part in a wheelchair sport felt entirely alien, particularly as Fairbank didn’t know anyone else in a wheelchair, let alone who played a wheelchair sport. How things change. Today, Fairbank is ranked within the world’s top 50 female players, competes in up to 27 tournaments a year and has sponsorship deals with major global brands including Unilever and Wilson. There are hopes to represent France in the 2024 games in her home city of Paris and if that wasn’t enough, this summer she gained the latest qualification needed to fulfil her hopes of becoming a solicitor. Combined with her sunny disposition and enviable tan (when we spoke she was just back from a holiday in the South of France) it’s almost too much for me to bear. 

But this is not a story of endless sunshine. At 15, Fairbank was in an accident which left her lower body paralysed. While she speaks of the accident matter-of-factly, it would be foolish to imagine this acceptance came naturally to someone still technically considered a child. She spent 12 months after the accident transitioning through a period of intense grief which manifested itself predominantly in dogged denial. Despite doctors telling her otherwise, Fairbank remained convinced she would walk again. The extensive physiotherapy necessary to maintain the natural growth spurt and muscle mass of someone so young only fuelled her belief hard work would result in a medical miracle.

“I think I suffered more from my accident three years after the accident itself rather than immediately afterwards,” Fairbank tells me as she drives home from a day’s training outside of Paris. “At the beginning I was surrounded by family and friends, and obviously was also slightly in denial but leading a happy life. I was receiving presents on a daily basis from people. It was great!”  However, as time passed, the realisation she would be “in this for life” solidified. Fairbank had to start making decisions. She applied and was accepted to study Law at Southampton University and went on to spend two more years in the city as a paralegal once she graduated. When fate served such an unexpected twist of fate, Fairbank returned by sticking to a conventional career path.

As soon as she started playing, friends commented how much happier she suddenly appeared

It was in pursuing this traditional vocation the legal student found herself on unfamiliar, but promising, ground. Playing a sport at university is a rite of passage for many students but the decision to try wheelchair tennis while in Bristol was one loaded with emotional significance for Fairbank. She tells me resisting a wheelchair sport had been, in many ways, a way of resisting her life in a wheelchair. When I ask if playing was an important step in her mental rehabilitation she nods emphatically, describing it as a cure that made her feel “completely better”. In fact as soon as she started playing, friends commented how much happier she suddenly appeared. They urged her to consider turning professional, which Fairbank dismissed as a joke. But the denial was over. A new chapter could finally begin. 

A constant theme throughout Fairbank’s story is pivotal change. Her story hinges on a series of decisions fuelled by an adventurousness that I don’t get the impression would have become so well developed had she not been in a wheelchair. After working as a paralegal for a couple of years, Fairbank decided to take a six month sabbatical to Argentina to learn a new language and do some volunteer work. In reality she ended up “low level stalking” the Argentinian national wheelchair tennis team and convincing the coaches to allow her to train there. Three months later she was committed to three or four intense training sessions a week, each one consisting of four hours of match practice followed by a couple more hours in the gym.  

Fairbank with her brother William, who carried her all the way up to the peak of Machu Picchu

It was while in Argentina that Fairbank’s frustration found an outlet. If you watch a clip of her competing you are in no doubt this is an athlete who thrives on the extreme physical exertion required to win. As our conversation develops, it becomes clear it is the intensity and demanding nature of the sport, rather than the love of tennis specifically, which is the true source of her motivation. Pushing herself to the limits of her physical ability, when she denied her paraplegia for so long, appears to be the therapy no doctor could have prescribed. While Fairbank was too busy to notice, her training caused a noticeable physical change. “I came back to Europe absolutely massive. My arms were huge,” she laughs. In this instance, her original plan to volunteer turned out to be a very different growth experience. 

For a year Fairbank played in tournaments representing the UK (she has dual nationality) but now she plays under the French flag because “completely honestly I had more tennis opportunities to enter the national team if I played for France.” However it is the South American way of playing, with its aggression, both on the court and in the gym, which she prefers. So much so that when the Argentine team flies to Barcelona for a month to train each year, she joins them for a week to spend time with the coaches. She tells me half of her tennis and fitness routine is actually based out of the Spanish city. While her house is in Paris, I wonder if she actually feels most at home on a tennis court, regardless of the continent it happens to be on. 

“Every time I go somewhere exotic, people say to me ‘Oh you’re so lucky you’re going there’ and I tell them I’ll be seeing the hotel room, the hotel buffet and the court”

Not being tethered to one place is an important string in Fairbank’s racket. Travel is a prerequisite to the job and something she seems to manage with a weary sense of acceptance. There are no attempts on her part to glamourise what is effectively a lot of time spent on Skyscanner. Mutual friends regale me with anecdotes about the way she commutes alone back and forth from London to Paris with her tennis chair and luggage in tow. There seems to be a general air of admiration for the life Fairbank lives but the glossiness is only a veneer. “Every time I go somewhere exotic, people say to me ‘Oh you’re so lucky you’re going there’ and I tell them I’ll be seeing the hotel room, the hotel buffet and the court. That’s it. I don’t go to the beach. I don’t go clubbing… It is amazing to travel the world but the reality is it’s very lonely.” 

It is also very expensive and so like most athletes, Fairbank has several sponsors who help support her in exchange for a number of personal appearances, talks and marketing opportunities. She shares a hotel room whenever she travels to cut costs and has kept up her legal studies to make sure she has another revenue stream if required. Practicing law is a balancing element in her life and acts as a security blanket as well as a distraction.

“Tennis doesn’t really stimulate your brain like law does and I miss that side of working when I don’t have it,” she tells me. “Ideally I would like to try and find a part time job that I could do remotely on my computer while travelling like legal translation. Not even for the money, but just to keep my brain going.” With Paris 2024 in her sights, law is not the priority for Fairbank at the moment, but by committing to her studies it’s clear the same ruthlessness that drives her tennis game fuels her life off the court as well. It took several years for Fairbank to give wheelchair tennis a chance. But as my recent 180 on Djokovic proves, sometimes a change of heart is the best thing for you. 

Lauren Saving

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