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Take A Seat Courtside At The U.S. Open Wheelchair Tennis Competition
September 17, 2013 by Howard Blas

In many ways, it was just another awesome day at the U.S. Open.

Photo credit: Howard Blas
Stephane Houdet of France prepares his serve.
Leander Paes and his partner won the mens’ doubles final; Serena Williams, won the womens’ championship; a boy from Croatia became the junior singles champion, while a 15-year-old with the first name “Tornado,” would narrowly miss an upset win of the junior girls’ championship.

And on courts 7 and 11, equally talented athletes with lesser-known names were also gearing up for two more finals, both in wheelchair tennis. In many ways, wheelchair tennis is just a regular part of the US Open. At the same time, it’s quite extraordinary.

Some background, courtesy of a sign outside court 7: “Wheelchair Tennis began in California in 1976. Since then, it has grown to be played on six of the seven continents and, currently, there are more than 170 tennis tournaments on the wheelchair professional tour. The US Open Wheelchair Competition was established in 2005 … The Men’s and Women’s division athletes have disabilities in their lower extremities only and are classified by gender. Quad division athletes have disabilities in their lower and upper extremities and are classified based on disability, not gender. It is one of the only sports in which you may see men and women competing against each other on equal terms.”

Each wheelchair tennis player has his or her unique story. As a credentialed journalist (I also covered the Open for the Times of Israel), I am lucky enough to learn more about these athletes when I receive a copy of the 2013 U.S. Open Tennis Championship Wheelchair Tennis Competition Media Guide, as well as a supplemental packet of player biographies.

On court 7, I saw the #2 seed, Stephane Houdet of France, and the #1 seed, Shingo Kuneida of Japan, preparing for their match, which Houdet won.

Houdet, who has two sets of twins and a veterinary degree, started to play tennis at the age of 8, then again at the age of 34 – ten years after his motorbike accident. Kuneida played tennis recreationally from ages 11 to 16 and then learned to play wheelchair tennis after becoming paralyzed by spine tumor surgery.

In wheelchair tennis, “preparing,” means transferring from regular wheelchairs to specially designed game chairs (large angled wheels, two small wheels in front, one small wheel in back), checking air in their tires, strapping themselves in to their chairs and putting in mouth guards. While wheelchair tennis has chair umpires, line judges and ball persons, each player has his or her own method of storing balls—in their laps, in a bag behind the chair, or in their spokes.

Court 11 hosted the Quad Singles Final is about to begin, with Lucas Sithole of Johannesburg battling #1 seed David Wagner of the United States. Wagner had been a college tennis player before a water accident 18 years ago.

“Let’s go, Wags!” cheer his buddies, many of them also in wheelchairs. Sithole, who was injured in a railway accident as a child, is “currently the highest ranked triple amputee on the wheelchair tennis rankings.”

The left-hander is an incredible athlete, using his partial right arm to help guide his chair as he races to each ball. Sithole stuns Wagner, upsetting him: 3-6, 6-4, 6-4.

Tennis fans like me returned home that Sunday having experienced quite an impressive scene — one of true inclusion. Tennis has found a way to naturally include athletes who have both disabilities and extraordinary abilities.

I wonder if tennis fans know that wheelchair tennis boasts a unique statistic: Esther Vergeerretired from wheelchair tennis last February with an active singles win streak of 470 matches. The last match she lost was ten years before her retirement, in January, 2003. Now, that’s an athlete we can all strive to emulate.

Howard Blas has served for 12 years as the director of the Tikvah Program at Camp Ramah in New England. The overnight camp program provides camping and vocational experiences for adolescents and young adults with special
needs. Howard was selected to be part of the first cohort of Jim Joseph Foundation Fellows, a program to teach educators and Jewish community professionals to develop online communities of practice. As a consultant on special needs camping programs for the National Ramah Commission, Howard has developed a community of practice for the directors of Ramah special needs programs, as well as “Shabbos Is Calling,” a weekly video chat for campers and staff. Howard recently received the S’fatai Tiftakh Award from Boston Hebrew College’s Center for Jewish Special Education and, in 2013, a Covenant Foundation grant for excellence in Jewish education.
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