Former USTA wheelchair champion chooses his next challenge
By Jennifer A. Sheffield
The tennis courts in Tallahassee, Fla., are closed due to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, and his 2014 U.S. Open Wheelchair Tennis Championship trophy is collecting dust, but Sunil Patel is staying positive.
In fact, after only two years of playing competitive eight and nine-ball, he is cuing up for a shot at the largest billiards tournament in the world held in Las Vegas, set for this fall.
“I never played sports until I was a lot older in age,” said Patel, who picked up a tennis racket for the first time at age 34. As an amateur, he rose quickly in the ranks by entering both national and international tournaments. He then became the face of teaching wheelchair tennis with support from the Florida Disabled Outdoors Association (FDOA) and earned recognition from the United States Tennis Association (USTA) as its 2019 Volunteer of the Year.
Patel’s billiards game began when he found local leagues through the American Poolplayers Association (APA).
“I moved up gradually,” he said. “It is not much different, except that tennis is played outside, and so you have elements. In pool, teams choose one member to play an opponent, and there is more coaching allowed. If there is a difficult shot to make, you are allowed one timeout, depending on your level.”
He admits that he likes tennis more than billiards, but Patel always looks past his limitations for his next challenge.
“This is my first time trying it,” he said. “It is a good sport because there are no adaptation requirements. I use my regular chair and no special equipment.”
He only plays against competitors without a disability and it has taught him, “I can play the same sport, even if I am limited,” he said.
Patel was born in London with phocomelia, which affected pregnant mothers taking the discontinued pharmaceutical drug thalidomide. He did not develop legs, and his right hand was also affected.
He moved with his parents and two siblings to the United States when he was 12 years old.
“They wanted better lives for us,” he said.
While he has had a wheelchair all of his life, he also used prosthetics. But the prosthetics were hard to wear, and he was accustomed to using his wheelchair.
This first led Patel to participate in wheelchair basketball. Attending a sports camp in Gainesville, Fla., in 1999, he was introduced to organized tennis. Two years later, he was the top-ranked player in USTA’s Amateur Wheelchair C Division.
His favorite shot is drop-shot serve, and he says his hand-eye coordination is better for billiards because of tennis.
“Both are all about angles and moving around and using some type of ball,” he said.
Known as “Sunny” by friends, Patel reigned as a singles champion of the Jana Hunsaker Memorial Tournament in New York, the Atlanta Open and the Geranium Festival Wheelchair Tennis Tournament in Georgia leading up to the U.S. Open. He has since captained a Tallahassee men’s team in Orlando, Fla. He said of his winning streak, “It gave me more passion and appreciation for the sport.”
Sharing his love of the game by teaching it to children also became one of his passions. However, he said it was hard to get a successful development program started in his town.
“It is hard to find people interested in tennis, since they’ve never tried it out and don’t have equipment,” he said. “I got involved in demonstrating tennis and basketball, and that enabled me to show others what sports I can play and they can participate in. I think basketball is a popular sport because as a team, we all have something in common.”
He described tennis events, too, as having 70 nations from around the world in attendance.
“Professionals can serve 120 miles per hour from a wheelchair,” he said. “Mentally, you always must play the sport tough, and you have to think, and it takes time to understand it, but strengths can come from experiences in other sports that you can utilize.”
So what about in billiards?
He is out to prove his local club’s motto: “Everyone can play. Anyone can win.”
Patel was named the MVP of his eight- and nine-ball team that took first overall at this year’s APA session.
“I have obtained a title,” he said about reaching his tennis goal. “It was one of the greatest things I have done in my sports career, but if I work hard at everything I do and use my God-given talent, then I can inspire others to try something different.”
You can follow Patel’s progress on his Facebook page, and find out about programs in U.S. locations, current tournament schedules, plus, the history of wheelchair tennis at: https://www.usta.com.