Wheelchair Tennis Gets its Day
Long relegated to the backcourts and tournaments’ ends, other-abled athletes take center stage at Tokyo’s Paralympics
While Novak Djokovic’s Golden Slam hopes were dashed, those of Dutch player Diedre de Groot, kissing the 2021 Wimbledon trophy, remain alive and well at the Tokyo Paralympics starting on 24 August.
The obstacles to a clean forehand in tennis are many: knees bent, ball in front, sweet-spot placement, and good control of a properly weighted stick, whether it’s composite, carbon or graphite.
Throw in a 10-pound wheelchair, velcro straps to secure the legs, 20-degree-angled wheels, $3,000 for the additional equipment and voila!, the difficulty of that forehand, backhand, serve and volley increased ten-fold. Not to mention if the ball hits any part of the chair itself, it’s the opponent’s point.
Yet, the complexity of wheelchair tennis — or the abilities of its star players — have been scarcely noticed since the sport made its official debut in 1992 with the NEC/ITF Wheelchair Tennis Tour, featuring 11 international events. Slowly, but surely, however, with social media exposure, the introduction of Grand Slam wheelchair draws, and the increasing popularity of the Paralympics, wheelchair players, such as the Netherlands’ Diede de Groot, England’s Alfie Hewett, Australia’s Dylan Alcott and Japan’s Yui Kamiji are getting their due with the stage now set at the Tokyo Paralympics, which begin 24 August.
Japan’s athlete Yui Kamiji playing the bronze medal match at the 2016 Rio Paralympics.
While Novak Djokovic and his quest for the Golden, and then the calendar-year Grand Slam consumed the tennis literati this past year, it’s hard to top de Groot in terms of grit and gusto. De Groot, whose unequal leg length put her in wheelchair tennis career as an ITF junior, she came close to winning all four Slams in 2019, losing only the Wimbledon. When she lost the singles in the 2016 Paraolympic Games in Rio, Tokyo became “the goal and it has been for four years,” de Groot has said. “I’ve really been training hard every day to perform very well at those Paralympics, and I ultimately want to reach two gold medals (in singles and doubles”.
The problem is, de Groot isn’t alone in that quest. In her immediate rear view is Yui Kamiji, the first Japanese woman to win a Paralympic wheelchair tennis medal with singles bronze at Rio. Crowned ITF World Champion in 2014 and 2017 — and the second non-Dutch women’s player to earn this title — Kamiji has run into de Groot on her way to the top, losing all three of four recent Grand Slam finals to de Groot. “I felt nothing but frustration after the Games,” Kamiji has said. “I did feel the relief of having earned a medal, but I wasn’t happy. I still feel the same way even today as I look back.”
Dylan Alcott, the top quad hopeful at the Paralympics, at Wimbledon in July. Alcott, who doesn’t have use of three of his limbs, plays with his racquet taped to his hand.
In the men’s draws, the name bandied about most often is Dylan Alcott, an Australian who, like de Groot, is two wins short of a Golden Slam: the Paralympics and the U.S. Open. However, Alcott competes in a different category of wheelchair tennis known as the Quad. While players compete in the Open division if they have a permanent physical disability in which they can’t use one or both lower limbs, players, like Alcott, compete in the Quad if they can’t use three limbs or are paralyzed from the chest down. Men and women also compete in a unisex draw.
Alcott, who was born in 1990 with a tumor wrapped around his spinal cord — later removed leaving him disabled — first made his name in Wheelchair Basketball at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign and then trained at the 2012 London Paralympic Games. Four years later, he went to Rio playing tennis. With racquets taped to his hands — as many quad players — Alcott brought home gold medals in singles and doubles. He then went on to win the inaugural Roland Garros and Wimbledon quad singles titles in 2019 and is now a 13-time Grand Slam singles champion.
Top British player Alfie Hewitt at Rio 2016. Hewitt faces the end of a wheelchair tennis career, as the ITF rewrites the sport’s classification. Hewitt’s condition allows him to walk on a limited basis.
While the question of Alcott’s competitiveness in the Quad event seems fairly settled, the men’s Open has raised a bit of controversy in the past few months. Leading the field is Japanese player, Shingo Kunieda, but just behind him sits Brit Alfie Hewitt, a 16-time grand slam champion who has competed under a certain cloud of incertitude since the ITF decided to adjust its disability qualifications to level the playing field, so to speak. Hewitt suffers from Perthes disease, which affects his hips and his ability to walk, but does not leave him wheelchair-bound — unless on a tennis court.
Because he can use his lower limbs, the ITF initially ruled Hewett ineligible to compete in the Paralympic category. But as there is not other option for disabled tennis players outside of wheelchairs, the ITF has more recently consulted with physiotherapists and doctors to try and create more tennis-specific criteria. Until a final decision is made, Hewett competes under a Covid loophole which gave him an extra year on tour and in Tokyo.
“At first I struggled to accept it and understand, but over time it’s something you do have to let go because it can be quite exhausting and consuming,” Hewett has said. “I still have a job to do. At the moment, I still have great opportunities: Paralympics, the US Open… I would never have forgiven myself if I continued with this miserable, mopey attitude and behavior from a decision that’s not in my control.”
Brad Parks competing in one of his first tennis tournaments as a wheelchair tennis pro.
Although recently gaining ground — thanks to the appeal of certain athletes like de Groot and Alcottm who have various sponsorships — wheelchair tennis has been around since 1976, when a newly paralyzed, former freestyle skiing prodigy named Brad Parks and a fellow patient named Jeff Minnebraker wheeled across the street from their rehab hospital to tennis courts and picked up their racquets. “I was sitting in the hospital, thinking, what am I going to do now?” Parks has said. “I knew I had to make the best of the situation. I started thinking, ‘I wonder if you can play tennis in a wheelchair?’”
While the two of them labored to push the heavy and cumbersome hospital chairs around the court, according to the USTA, a pair of able-bodied players on the next court yelled over, “Why do you guys even bother?” They became even more determined. Minnebraker eliminated push handles from his wheelchair, slimmed down the back and repositioned the wheels to make it leaner and meaner. “I just streamlined it as much as possible and looked at it as more of a sports car that would perform, something that would really function well,” Minnebraker said in the 1976 documentary “Get It Together.” Parks learned how to make his own and soon enough they created the wheelchair brand, Quadra.
Next, the two joined forces with several officials to create the National Foundation of Wheelchair Tennis (NFWT). Under the NFWT, tennis adopted a “two bounce” rule — wheelchair tennis players are allowed two bounces of the ball, along as the first bounce occurs within the bounds of the court and instead of “foot faults” players commite “wheel faults” — and then formed a 10-tournament circuit.
In 1998, the ITF fully integrated the IWTF, making it the first disabled sport to achieve international level. Wheelchair became a full-medal sport at the 1992 Paralympic Games in Barcelona, where Parks partnered with the late Randy Snow and brought home the men’s doubles gold. Today the the UNIQLO Wheelchair Tennis Tour holds more than 160 tournaments across 40 different countries in every region of the world.
And while Wheelchair tennis players still have a ways to go in prize money — the Wimbledon Wheelchair singles champions took home £46,000 in 2019 compared with £45,000 to able-bodied first-round losers — it still marked an 84 per cent jump from 2016. “The sport has achieved more than I thought possible,” said Parks, who was inducted into International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2010.
The founder still had some wishes, however. “I would love to see the athletes become more well-known worldwide, and appreciated for not only their life story but their extreme talents as athletes,” he added. “I would love to have live-streaming to a point where fans could tune in on a regular basis to the most important wheelchair tennis events. And I would love to see more spectators attend and follow our players and the sport.”
Brad Parks (center) inducted into the 2010 class of the International Tennis Hall of Fame along with (left to right) Natasha Zvereva, Gigi Fernandez, Mark Woodforde, Todd Woodbridge and Owen Davidson.