By Krystle Russin
While signs all around town greet Manhattan tourists shouting “U.S. Open Wheelchair Tennis,” most tennis fans will never see nor learn about its presence at all four Grand Slam events. Widely known overseas, it is rarely televised at home, its athletes never covered by American press. American wheelchair tennis coach and manager Dan James says when he travels with his athletes, people often think they are going to a wheelchair convention.
“For us, one of our biggest challenges is to let people know that wheelchair tennis isn’t just a neat inspirational activity. It is a professional sport,” he says. “We have 150 pro tournaments throughout the year.”
Wheelchair tennis began at the U.S. Open several years ago. Back then, the total purse was just $25,000. Now $100,000, though the highest prize money for wheelchair tennis in the world, the purse feels like pocket change next to the $21.6 million regular tournament purse. Wheelchair tennis is equally as interesting as a Sharapova match. It moves fast and the rules are all the same, with the exception of allowing the ball to bounce twice.
“Our top players in practice can beat most recreational able-bodied players,” says James, who along with coaching duties, organized this year’s event. At the U.S. Open, “The players are completely integrated into the event. They are rated just like the able-bodied players, the same gifts, locker rooms and access. That’s a huge compliment to the USTA.”
Tonight, for instance, the players cruised around the Statue of Liberty under a Henry Hudson Day fireworks display, complete with fine dining and musical entertainment.
Coached by Steve Wilkinson, James played tennis himself at Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota, a top ten ranked school in NCAA Division III tennis. He realized he loved tennis but never had the talent or “coolness” to make it in the ATP tour, so he wound up coaching at a tennis club.
“I had no false dreams. I would’ve really liked to play satellites or team tennis overseas. Financially, it wasn’t possible. It wasn’t a depressing thing, but I look at my life now and what I’ve experienced through tennis. While I’ve never gotten to play on the tour, wheelchair tennis on the tour has been such a wonderful part of my life. I have no regets.”
He volunteered teaching wheelchair tennis for seven years until he was discovered by top player Randy Snow, the first Paralympian inducted in the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame. “I got very lucky in who I met. He [Snow] invited me to do some camps. By the time 1998 rolled around, I was very fortunate to land a role on the national team as one of the coaches,” he says.
“One of the things that drew me to wheelchair tennis was the inherent strength of the people I was working with. I feel I am tougher on my wheelchair athletes than my able-bodied athletes. With the player I coach at home, we used to have a bet jokingly that at every practice, I’d make him fall out of his chair. They work as hard, if not harder, than any other athletes I’ve been around. The really cool thing after you’ve been around wheelchair tennis a lot is you forget the chair. It’s the athlete and the person, which it should be anyway.”
He has gone to Africa to introduce wheelchair tennis and next month, over 11 days, will test his Spanish teaching Bolivians how to coach the sport. At camps, the youngest person he has ever personally coached was three years old. And some players “have hair grayer than mine. Wheelchair tennis is a little different than able-bodied tennis because the age range is so much larger. It’s not as important as athletic ability and commitment.”
The American players differ from foreign teams in that they work day jobs. Outside the United States, wheelchair tennis players receive corporate sponsorship. For tennis being so lucrative, American wheelchair tennis players must work harder on court and financially. Without significant media coverage, a Nike sponsorship is out of the picture. This may all be the case, but “crossing paths” has never entered James’ mind.
“I’ve had other opportunities outside of wheelchair tennis, but there is really nothing better than the combination of an elite sport, quality people and seeing the world. I feel like I’m really fortunate to work where I work,” he says.
Tomorrow morning, the Today Show will end its U.S. Open coverage with a segment on wheelchair tennis. Today, ESPN televised a small portion of a women’s match during a break from Williams sisters doubles. The Tennis Channel has pledged to cover the wheelchair matches this weekend. For a sport that has been fighting to break into mainstream media, this small amount of air time is a huge deal. James wants people to look at his athletes like regular athletes. Most coverage, while good, he says, leaves tennis fans feeling sorry for the handicapped athletes and forgetting their accomplishments, failures and struggles to the top. The best recent memory he has was ESPN’s declaration on Sports Center: “The U.S. wheelchair team sucked!”
“Maybe we did suck!” James says, happy the athletes were given fair coverage. He and his team members saw Melanie Oudin today at the players’ lounge, though they didn’t get to meet her. In the past, they have met the big names though. They have bumped into top players like Roger Federer, who spoke to the wheelchair tennis players for a long time. A very long time. James looked back and saw him speaking with the players, twenty minutes deep into conversation. Federer treated them as equals. Another player James highly respects is Rafael Nadal. He spent time autographing a ball and speaking with a friend’s child — without realizing the child was terminally ill, or that his big wish was to get Nadal’s autograph. James says these two players act from the heart.
“Other people need to see the same value in them as athletes. We are embraced,” he says, proudly reflecting that no one mentioned wheelchair as the operative word. They were the American team. “In 2007, we had standing room only at the quad doubles final. I hope the event at the U.S. Open inspires kids with injuries to try wheelchair tennis.”
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