Sportable partners with USTA to bring players into the game, and push tennis forward
Wheelchair tennis has been played at all four Grand Slam tennis tournaments (Australia, France, the U.S. and Wimbledon) since 2007, and the first Sportable Adaptive Sports and Recreation River City Slam aimed to ensure a clear path to those championships becomes one that more junior athletes take.
The tournament and camp in Richmond, Va., June 11-13, christened match play on both sides of the net for players from across the country, who hadn’t played in tournaments in 14 months because of novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic restrictions and cancellations. Marine Corps and Vietnam veteran Bruce Patton, 71, competed in Co-ed B Singles and Doubles and is a longtime Sportable volunteer.
“This is what normal is,” Patton said about breaking out of the pandemic era. “For us, it is playing tournaments where everyone is having a good time. Actually, I feel more excitement this year than I’ve felt in a long time from everyone.”
The United States Tennis Association (USTA) sanctioned event and three-day camp welcomed 56 players from as far as Georgia, California and Oregon. Its focus was on skill development and fun, but the format also provided opportunities for opponents to be competitively matched.
The tournaments included first timers, in Divisions A, B, C and D, along with a junior division that was stocked with Team USA national junior players like Maylee Phelps, 14, who’s ranked 14th on the International Tennis Federation singles roster, and Charles Cooper, 13, who is ranked first in the United States and 19th in the world.
To get the weekend started, nine Junior Division athletes sped onto the hard courts at Williams Bollettieri Tennis Center at Collegiate School in a clinic called Play With The Paralympian with collegiate tennis graduate Shelby Baron. Drills and challenges focused on form, as Baron tossed balls from the net.
Baron, who is a USTA Net Generation provider for the Southern region and is serving a second term as a member of the National Wheelchair Tennis Committee, said she came up in the sport with able-bodied athletes and didn’t know how to compare herself to her peers before she went to her first camp at age 15.
“It was a big step to find out about players my age with my disability who were playing tennis,” she said. “All of a sudden I had a goal.”
USTA Manager of Wheelchair Tennis Jason Allen said in 2017, only 13 juniors in the country played in a USTA tournament. So, as Baron waits for a wild card spot for the Tokyo Paralympic Games this summer, she’s spreading her passion to places such as Richmond.
Multi-sport athlete Hannah Smith, 18, recently signed to play wheelchair basketball at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, but she played in her first wheelchair tennis tournament after starting the sport just a month ago. The Richmond resident finished her first match against 18-year-old Max Barbier, 4-0, 4-0.
“I am jumping into tennis brand new, but like any adaptive sport, it is life-changing,” Smith said.
Zane Goodwin, 14, who has arthritis in 17 joints, trains with Baron in Alabama.
“She’s tough,” Goodwin said, but feeling ready for his matches was worth the toll on his body.
Meanwhile, Barbier, who has spina bifida, not only filled his weekend scorecard, but he fired up against Cooper in the Under-18 Singles semifinal in a powerful game of serves and friendly trash talk.
“At least I got beat by my friend,” he said.
But it wasn’t just about the matches in Richmond. There were reunions, and competitors kept the wheels turning – from pushing chairs up the hills that connected the courts, to cheering one another on and even razzing some from the sidelines.
Current University of Arizona team player Michelle Wilson faced Clemson University affiliate player Jeff Townsend, losing 6-3, 6-4, in Co-ed B Singles finals.
“I love playing, so any tournament or program that lets us do that, then I automatically love it,” Wilson said.
Patton advanced to the quarterfinals (6-0, 6-1), and with partner Christopher Lamps, took the title (6-3, 6-1).
Sportable Program Manager and Tournament Director Forrest Lodge said Richmond has held a small local tournament of 10-20 players for the last 12 years, but support and participation in parts of the weekend that were open to the public surpassed expectations.
“We churned out matches,” said Lodge. “Our approach to tennis is as a lifelong sport, and we used the event as a catalyst to complement weekly programs offered leading up to it.”
Since 2013, Hunter Leemon has been executive director of Sportable, which provides more than 15 community-level sports.
“Pent-up demand from COVID helped, but what’s great about tennis is its inclusive model of ongoing opportunities,” Leemon said.
About the competition, Lodge said, “This weekend was hard because the draw structure created a lot of consolation matches, but with athletes being flexible, we got a ton of tennis in.”
Different coaching styles were also on display in Richmond, and several professional coaches participated in a USTA wheelchair tennis course over the weekend, which included on-court curriculum.
Gabby Hesse of the Junior Tennis Champions Center in College Park, Md., said it was important for players she brought to compete against others with whom they may have only practiced.
Others focused on coaching themselves.
Holly Petro, 36, of Hanover Township, Pa., played in Co-ed B Singles and Doubles and fell, 6-0, 6-0, to Patton.
“It’s really important not to compare myself to others because I don’t always know why my opponent is also in a chair,” Petro said. “Having a T5 spinal-cord injury, ‘If they can do it, I can do it,’ goes on in my head when I play an amputee, but mine is a different challenge.”
Lodge said it’s not all about points but about making tennis a permanent part of any program, so those who are not tournament-ready can learn from top players and coaches.
Patton, who has been helping Sportable since its inception in 2005, said the highlight of his weekend was rooting on Wyatt Brady, who was defeated by Emmy Pfankuch, 4-1, 4-0, in Co-ed 18 and Under Singles.
“He grinned ear-to-ear, and so when I can’t play anymore, I’ll hope to go watch people like him,” Patton said.
While the weather forecast made athletes’ first post-pandemic experience together a guessing game that meant shuttling to and from indoor facilities, the sun came out in time for final draws.
“Hopefully, there are sunny days ahead, so our job is to try to be prepared for that,” Baron said of the future capacity of U.S. wheelchair tennis.