Forty years ago, Brad Parks decided to swing at a tennis ball from his wheelchair. A former skier, the American had suffered an injury that left him paraplegic. It was during his rehab that he started playing around with the sport, and ultimately helped create what is now known as wheelchair tennis.
Canada’s national coach, Kai Schrameyer, recently wrote about the 40th anniversary of wheelchair tennis for the International Tennis Federation. Schrameyer formerly competed for Germany on the tour and won two Paralympic medals. The sport has made a huge impact on his life and in the article he describes his experiences over the years with wheelchair tennis.
Same, but different
The rules of wheelchair tennis are exactly the same as tennis, beyond the simple exception that two bounces are allowed. This makes wheelchair tennis one of the most accessible sports in the world, as it can be easily integrated with able-bodied tennis on the very same court.
Most wheelchair tennis players play in sport chairs, designed for easier mobility. The sport chairs have cambered wheels, meaning they’re angled, and are made of lighter materials like titanium, resulting in improved speed and maneuverability.
Wheelchair tennis can help
No matter what level of tennis, there are many benefits to playing the sport – wheelchair or standing.
Some of them include:
- Playing with your family: tennis is considered to be a “sport for life” that can be played by almost any age – whether standing on two feet or in a wheelchair
- Social: tennis is a great way to connect with others
- Great exercise: strengthen your heart and lungs, increase muscle and joint function and get a great work out without even realizing!
- Rehabilitation: tennis can improve your mental health, confidence and life skills following an injury
Kim Schaffels’ son Trevor participates in the Little Aces wheelchair tennis program in Mississauga, On. and says the fact he can play the sport with his able-bodied friends is also a huge benefit:
“Trevor loves wheelchair tennis. Every week he can't wait to go because he has friends to play with. He’s also made new friends because of the sport. It helps strengthen his upper body, which is something he needs being confined to the wheelchair. He can also play with friends and family who are not handicapped and it doesn't matter how good anyone is. Trevor plays sledge hockey but that’s only with other kids who are handicapped. He can't just play with his brother as he could with tennis. It's harder to find ice time, but with tennis we can play any time and it is great to have a summer sport.”
Just like able-bodied tennis, wheelchair tennis can be played recreationally or at performance competitive level. The UNIQLO Wheelchair Tennis Tour consists of more than 140 tournaments in over 40 countries, with total prize money of over two million dollars.
Those tournaments include the same Grand Slams offered on the able-bodied tours – Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon, and US Open. Canada will have played host to six International Tennis Federation-sanctioned events in 2016.
To be eligible to compete on the wheelchair tennis tour, a player must have a medically diagnosed permanent mobility-related physical disability, resulting in a loss of function in one or both lower extremities. The sport is divided into four categories – men’s, women’s, quad and juniors.
While the debate rages on in the able-bodied tennis world about who is the greatest of all-time (Roger Federer? Novak Djokovic? Serena Williams?), there is no arguing Esther Vergeer’s supremacy in wheelchair tennis. She perhaps is the most the most dominant tennis player ever.
The Dutch player won:
- 21 Grand Slam singles titles
- 23 Grand Slam doubles crowns
- Seven Paralympic gold medals (four in singles and three in doubles)
- A total of 148 singles and 136 doubles titles and;
- Finished her illustrious career on a 470-match win streak that lasted 10 years.
She also was the No. 1-ranked tennis player in the world from 1999 until her retirement in February 2013.
Each week, updated world rankings are released by the ITF.
Canada’s current top-ranked players include:
- World No. 25 Gary Luker in the quad division
- World No. 57 Philippe Bedard on the men’s circuit
- No. 56 Tara Llanes in the women’s division
- World No. 12 Puisand Lai in juniors.
The highest-ranked player in Canadian history is Sarah Hunter of Surrey, BC who reached world No. 2 in quad singles on April 21, 2003. Thirteen years later, she is still a top player in Canada.
It’s a country-versus-country tournament for the title of world champion, and this year a total of 29 nations competed across the various categories. Canada sent its quad national team – Luker, Hunter, Rob Shaw, and Mika Ishikawa – with a goal of finishing in the top 6, a feat that would earn them a spot in next year’s event. Seeded No. 8, the squad pulled off some fantastic results to reach their goal and came home with a sixth-place result.
Rio 2016 – The Paralympic Games
The best players in the world just finished competing in the Paralympic Games, which continues to be the most important event and biggest showcase for the sport. Wheelchair tennis has been part of the Paralympics since the Barcelona 1992 Games.
Canada has yet to win a Paralympic medal in wheelchair tennis, but we came close at the 2004 Athens Games with a fourth-place finish in quad doubles by Hunter and the late Brian McPhate.
This year, Canada was represented in Rio by Philippe Bedard in men’s singles. Bedard also participated in London 2012 alongside the now-retired Joel Dembe. Our 2012 Paralympians also engineered one of the best moments ever in Canadian wheelchair tennis history just last summer. Philippe Bedard and Joel Dembe teamed up to win Canada’s first-ever wheelchair tennis medal at a multi-sport event at the Parapan American Games in Toronto, winning bronze in men’s doubles.
Bedard and Dembe are actually two of the best players to come out of Canada; together they’ve won four men’s doubles titles at the biggest wheelchair tennis event held in the country each year, the Birmingham National Wheelchair Tennis Championships.
Last year, 32 participants from six provinces competed at the event, which was held at the UBC Tennis Centre. It will be back there again in 2016, from October 27-30.
How you can start
The easiest way to start playing wheelchair tennis is to just grab a racquet and some balls, and head over to your nearest public court. That’s all it takes! If you want to get involved at an organized level, contact your provincial wheelchair tennis association for more information on local events.
Tennis Canada’s wheelchair tennis department would also be happy to answer any questions or inquiries.