Wheelchair Tennis Still Seeking Traction at US Open
by Staff | September 11th, 2009, 11:07 am

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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9 Comments for Wheelchair Tennis Still Seeking Traction at US Open

Henry Says:

Great piece Krystle ! Really nice to see you are paying attention to wheelchair tennis.

Wheelchair tennis players are the true champions.

The fact that there is not one single post/reaction to your article shows how ignorant tennis fans are when it comes to wheelchair tennis.
The US Open is the only tournament that has reasonable prize money for wheelchair tennis players.
Most people think of wheelchair tennis as a circus act. However, there’s nothing more exciting than watching the top wheelchair players compete or a top men’s doubles wheelchair tennis match. I would recommend all those posting on tennis-x to watch when they get a chance. It’s a humbling and motivating experience which will make you realize that as an able bodied person or athlete you should be a little more thankful and appreciative of the little things in life. It may also stop the bickering on the different threads on this site about silly totally irrelevant things/matters.
Wheelchair athletes don’t want people to feel sorry for them. Therefore, my advise would be for any parent that has a tennis- playing child to let him/her watch wheelchair tennis. Maybe, just maybe, they will then learn to have more fun on court and enjoy the sport, in stead of cheating and the many tantrums we see on court in junior tennis today. And then, when and if they grow into able bodied pro players, they will be more thankful for the fact that they are paid for what they love doing.
Roger, Rafa, the Bryans and a number of other players have been and are very supportive of wheelchair tennis and treat wheelchair players as true athletes.

jane Says:

Recently I saw Rafa Nadal hit with a tennis player in a wheel chair when his match ended early in Montreal at the Roger’s Cup – after Ferrer retired. That is the ONLY time I’ve seen wheelchair tennis so I didn’t comment on the article. It was neat to see Rafa hit with this guy who clearly had amazing strength. I don’t think I’ve ever seen coverage of the slam matches on t.v.

This is somewhat unrelated, but when I watched the documentary “Murderball” a few years back, I found it both mind-boggling and inspiring. Wow.

Henry Says:

Thanks Jane for the link, but I have been following wheelchair tennis as long as I’ve been following able bodied pro- and junior tennis, so am aware of all the problems in getting it televised. Tennis Channel does a nice job in presenting top wheelchair matches from time to time.
It’s too bad with all the other coverage they don’t at least show some of the top players in action. There was plenty of opportunity with all the rain delays and supsension and all they did was showing two rallys of the top women’s player.

ShayHay Says:

I saw some of the wheel chair tennis matches they showed during the rain delays and man….THEY WERE AWESOME. I really enjoyed watching it. I hope they start showing these athletes more often.

Krystle N. Russin Says:

OK, I know this may be wrong to come out with an opinion on something I wrote about, but if I may:

Please televise wheelchair tennis on ESPN and Tennis Channel. Think if the Olympics didn’t cover say, swimming. They covered every event BUT swimming. The outrage on that would be ridiculous, right? Why then, is wheelchair tennis left out?

A typical endorsement contract is about $5 million on the lower end. Wheelchair tennis athletes have to have day jobs AND train. Most athletes receive a form of sponsorship, because training is their day job. I’m not saying reduce Federer’s salary, but that if he were to earn $1 million less and should that go to wheelchair athletes split up, that makes a big difference.

Click my name on this comment to go on the official wheelchair tennis URL. You will see it’s very, very interesting – if not as interesting as able-bodied tennis.


blah Says:

I agree with televising wheelchair tennis. They televise everything else. At least show the finals. They don’t even get a mention from anybody and it’s not hard to see why many are not aware of this event’s existence.

Sharon Says:

I agree, please show more wheelchair tennis on tv. I know many people would enjoy watching these exciting matches, including myself.

Mike Says:

My daughter really wanted to see a wheelchair match this year, after seeing one last year. In the middle of the Roger/Novak semi, my wife found out there was an ongoing wheelchair final on a side court. We took off to see the men’s quad doubles final during set 2, catching the Djokovic surrender rally on the big screen on the way to Court 11. As the WC battle continued, the kids did not want to return to Ashe even as Roger was closing out the match. They adamantly wanted to see the end of the WC match and have the players autograph their ball. The officials seemed thrilled that they wanted their big ball autographed by these athletes, and guided them onto the court for the signing after the awards ceremony.

Impressed as the kids were, we didn’t realize we’d stumbled onto the quad match, so they were thrilled to see the other men’s WC doubles final, too, before the Clijsters/Wosniacki final.

I’m really disappointed that the games aren’t broadcast, or at least available online. I think that if they were available as online archived matched, they would get some word-of-mouth “you gotta see this” exposure, and the support would grow.

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