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To appreciate wheelchair tennis, get in the chair

July 22, 2015 03:53 PM

By Jonathon Braden
USTA South Carolina

GREENVILLE, S.C. – I had spent less than 15 minutes in a wheelchair and already my biceps were talking.

More than a handful of people and I sat in wheelchairs on court No. 4 at the Kroc Center on Monday. We had just attempted to push ourselves up the slightest incline on court, an incline so subtle I wouldn’t have noticed it any other day.

But my pushes propelled me only to the middle of the court, far from where I wanted to stop.

I would struggle again and again at the Orthotic and Prosthetics Activities Foundation wheelchair tennis clinic. I'd go nowhere when I wanted to turn. I wouldn't push hard enough when I wanted to move.

But my frequent struggles taught me something I’ll remember: Wheelchair tennis is hard.

James has been teaching and growing wheelchair tennis for the past 22 years all over the world. (USTA SC photo)

“Tennis is based on ability, not disability,” Dan James, USTA National Manager of Wheelchair Tennis, had told us earlier.

He was right: Good wheelchair tennis players have skills that able-bodied players lack. They have solid upper-body strength that lets them constantly push themselves around the court. And their ability to flick their rackets at the ball, with little to no prep time, and hit deep shots would impress any standing player.

This is why I had come to the wheelchair tennis clinic – to learn what it was like to try to play wheelchair tennis. I had played tennis since I was a teenager, played doubles with a wheelchair tennis player and seen able-bodied players get in chairs; but never had I sat in a tennis wheelchair and tried to maneuver on court.

The other 35 clinic participants and I were in luck, though, because James, one of the world’s best wheelchair tennis coaches, was leading the clinic.

And, as he reminded us throughout the day, standing tennis and wheelchair tennis have only three differences: Wheelchair tennis allows players two bounces instead of one; wheelchair players can’t move laterally like standing players can; and, because the athletes are always pushing themselves, wheelchair players have little racket prep time.

“My favorite line ever is ‘tennis is tennis,’” said James, who’s coached wheelchair tennis for 22 years.

This was the fifth clinic in the past two months he had led in the Carolinas for OPAF, a Charlotte nonprofit that focuses on introductory adaptive recreational activities for people with physical and mobile disabilities. A grant from USTA Wheelchair Tennis let OPAF bring James to lead the clinics for physical therapists, tennis coaches and wheelchair and adaptive tennis players.

James directed the clinic with humor and smarts.

He made us laugh. “No pressure; everyone’s watching,” he told us before we first pushed ourselves on court.

He shared what’s helped him coach at 18 world team championships and four Paralympics. “The less you say, the better coach you are,” he said. “Too much talk is a terrible thing.”

He also preached fun over instruction.

To help wheelchair tennis players improve their pushing skills, James encouraged us to use games, not rote drills. He showed us “Sharks vs. Minnows,” a game in which two or three players sit in the middle of the court and try to tag a player or two before they reach the other sideline.

“Your job is to have some sort of competition,” James said. “Make it fun.”

His work with wheelchair tennis takes him all over the world, but James still makes time to lead grassroots clinics all over the U.S. (USTA SC photo)

About 22 years ago, James had little experience with wheelchair tennis.

He had recently finished playing at Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota, and a constant string of tournaments since age 10 had led to burnout.

But, as a new pro at a Twins Cities tennis club, he needed more on-court teaching time, so he showed up on a Sunday night to hit with a group he had never met.

James saw about a dozen wheelchair tennis players, and one court needed a fourth player. For the first time, James played wheelchair tennis.

Before that night, James, a former top-three player at a top-10 Division III program, viewed wheelchair tennis with skepticism: It looked cute, sure, but it wasn’t good tennis.

His view changed, however, when he sat in a chair and got whooped.

Three times he leaned too far back when trying to hit a backhand, and three times he somersaulted backwards. That was just the first half hour.

The experience intrigued him, though. James now had a new sport to study and master. “Relearning the sport through wheelchair tennis was truly invigorating,” he said after the Greenville clinic.

Since then, he’s promoted wheelchair tennis in 30 countries and six continents. For the International Tennis Federation, he’s traveled to Ghana, Tanzania, Kenya, Bolivia and Guatemala to advocate for the sport and people with disabilities.

“We want everyone in the world to be able to play wheelchair tennis,” James said.

In the U.S., he coaches some of the world’s best wheelchair tennis players, juniors like Conner Stroud of Rutherfordton, North Carolina, who was at the Greenville clinic, stroking the ball better than most standing players on their best day.

But for James, the best part about these grassroots clinics isn’t stealing more time to hit with a top junior. His favorite part is working with regular people, people who have never experienced wheelchair tennis but leave with an entirely new appreciation for the sport and for the people who play it.

“The beauty of these clinics,” he said, “is the fact that able-bodied players are getting in the chair to learn, and we’re breaking that division.”