Fans at the US Open continue to see less of people in wheelchairs playing tennis and more world-class athletes playing an exciting sport.
When more than 700,000 people attended September’s US Open in Flushing, N.Y., a number of them experienced wheelchair tennis for the first time.
While some attendees already knew of the athletes’ accomplishments and capabilities, others had their minds opened to a new side of tennis. The newcomers soon learned the action on the wheelchair tennis courts was as exciting as that on the able-bodied courts.
Thanks to the efforts of the United States Tennis Association (USTA) and others, wheelchair tennis is now being covered by national media such as ESPN and becoming recognized for the athletic prowess of its players. Each year, new fans are made as people observe wheelchair tennis matches taking place next to standing tennis.
“Tennis Is Tennis”
Dan James, national manager of wheelchair tennis with the USTA, U.S. Paralympic coach and tournament director of wheelchair competition at the US Open, boils down the difference between standing and wheelchair tennis to three key points.
“Wheelchair tennis players get two bounces. A wheelchair tennis player is using his or her arms to propel the chair and strike the ball, so there’s less time to swing. And lastly, the wheelchair doesn’t go sideways,” James says. “So, we’ve had to synthesize sideways mobility with movement patterns. Other than that, tennis is tennis.”
Tennis is one of the first and few sports to have so greatly integrated its adapted, or wheelchair, counterpart into its governing bodies and tournaments. In 1993, the International Tennis Federation (ITF) included the opportunity for athletes in wheelchairs to compete in non-disabled tournaments in addition to including the complete set of wheelchair tennis rules within the sport’s official rules.
The ITF’s inclusive decisions and the two-bounce rule allow for the opportunity to compete in a match with, or opposing, a standing tennis player. As the sport grew, the opportunities and adaptations expanded. In 2007, the US Open included a quad division in its wheelchair tennis tournament.
It’s A Kick
Nick Taylor, a U.S. player with arthrogryposis, a rare congenital disease, won the quad doubles with fellow U.S. athlete David Wagner that year. Taylor’s adaptations to achieve his best serve and game with the assistance of his power chair have earned him multiple gold medals and Grand Slam championships.
Taylor began his exploration of tennis as a 13-year-old hitting a tennis ball against his garage door for hours a day as he adapted and discovered techniques for his best moves.
The inability for lateral movement in wheelchair tennis is like “playing tennis on a pair of rollerblades, and you can’t ever pick your leg up … You don’t just step,” says Taylor as he explains the hurdles that face all wheelchair athletes. “Somebody that’s 6 feet, 4 inches takes one step sideways and they just covered 8 feet on a court, probably, with one split step and a stretch. We can’t do that.”
Taylor’s curved hands prevent him from throwing the ball up for a serve. James explains the uniqueness of Taylor’s adapted serve: He places the ball on one of his feet, kicks it into the air and hits a forehanded serve.
“But that’s like saying New York has some tall buildings,” James says. “It‘s a visual story of what happens when someone decides they can versus the slew of people who told him he couldn’t … An amazing story of fortuitiveness and figuring something out.”
When asked about approach and tactics, players don’t often refer to their physical adaptations, but rather to the hard work and mindset that helped them adapt and become competitive athletes. While tennis demands incredible endurance as athletes sprint across the court in fierce sun, the key seems to be staying mentally ahead of the opponent.
“All wheelchair tennis players, in my mind, have to think more than an able-bodied player has to think … We’re forced to that,” says Taylor, whose disabilities cause him to compete with a power chair instead of a push chair. “And then because of my disability, I have to think that much more. ’Cause if I don’t and I just hit the average ball down the middle, I’m never going to see the next ball. Ever.”
In short, succumbing to nerves and losing the tactical thinking game can cost the match. Individuals’ approaches to stay ahead of their nerves can be seen in the expressions of frustration and elation as points are won and lost.
A great example of this was seen when Andy Lapthorne, of Great Britain, defeated Wagner in the quad singles final. Wagner is a quad who has 30% use of his hands and tapes the racquet in place. As Lapthorne surged ahead, he calmed his nerves by shouting his celebration at each game won; he only let the shock of his win set in afterward.
“I tried to get vocal to keep myself concentrated, because when it’s 4-2 in the second set … I start thinking ‘If I can win this game, I can win the US Open,” Lapthorne says. “When I play with my heart and not my head, I usually win.”
Many of the wheelchair tennis matches at this year’s US Open pulled an audience of about 200 people, and the fans were clearly invested as gasps, whispers and excited shouts joined the sounds of the game.
The sport is complete with action, adaptation and world-class stars and has a riveted audience. But why, then, do the wheelchair championship matches only pull 200 fans while “pedestrian tennis” championships at the Open pull in more than 37,000? James recognizes the process needed for audiences to catch up.
“I think every able-bodied person who hasn’t been around disabled sports goes through the same evolution — absolute inspiration — ‘Wow, this is amazing! This is incredible! They’ve made the choice to do this!’” James says. “And then the longer you’re with them, this amazing thing happens. You stop seeing the chair. You stop seeing disabled athletes and you start seeing athletes.”
“We get a lot of ancillary crowd …,” James says. “They come out to see the great players that are here and as they’re walking to the courts, they’re stopped by the phenomenal level of wheelchair tennis.”
Having now won the quad singles, Lapthorne’s vision has grown.
“The dream for me now is that in 10 years time, hopefully [we’ll be] playing on stadium courts in front of thousands and thousands of people, with wheelchair tennis being recognized,” he says.
Carter Farmer is a freelance writer with an all-volunteer media team from the Wheelchair Sports Federation that covered the US Open. For more information, visit wheelchairsportsfederation.org.