[Note - This column was developed prior to Hurricane Katrina. My prayers go out to those affected and for their losses and thank those like our editor, Cliff Kurtzman, assisting in the Katrina Relief effort.]
Back in March 2002, Dan James, the US World Team Cup and Paralympic Coach (now the USTA wheelchair tennis high performance administrator for wheelchair tennis) and I, authored two columns for the Tennis Server on wheelchair tennis. Dan contributed Wheelchair Tennis - Coaches, Get Involved!, while I wrote on some of the medical conditions.
Wheelchair tennis is an amazing and exciting sport to watch. In 1976, 18 year old Brad Parks, injured in an acrobatic skiing accident, read an article about Jeff Minnenbraker, who was experimenting with a two bounce game for disabled players. Just five months after his own accident, Parks began hitting balls with his parents. The rest is history - which by the way can be found on the International Tennis Federation's (ITF) Wheelchair Tennis site beginning with 1976. One of the most appealing aspects of the sport is that the rules of tennis are basically the same with the exception of the 2-bounce rule for the disabled player. This allows wheelchair players the flexibility to play with able-bodied players, family and friends as well as other disabled players.
To commemorate the 25th anniversary of the sport in 2003, the ITF established the
Wheelchair Tennis Silver Fund. The Silver Fund's mission is to develop wheelchair tennis programs in countries unable to financially establish such projects. Many countries lack the resources to provide sports wheelchairs, build or rebuild courts, train wheelchair tennis coaches or modify existing tennis facilities to make them more accessible to the disabled. Countries supported by the Silver Fund include: Sri Lanka, Bolivia, Romania, South Africa, India, El Salvador, Indonesia and Columbia.
For a two-year period, the ITF wheelchair tennis department works with these countries to establish wheelchair tennis programs. They provide sports equipment, training, coaching education and other technical and management assistance to develop a self-sustaining program. In underdeveloped countries, those with disabilities often do not have the financial resources or government programs to acquire a sports wheelchair and are reliant on donated chairs. However, they do have enthusiastic organizations with a desire to develop these programs as well as eager new players. One example that the Silver Fund team noted was in Sri Lanka, where 100 soldiers shared 12 sports wheelchairs.
In some countries, individuals with physical disabilities are treated very poorly. However, the Silver Fund program promotes a positive image of individuals with disabilities. This paradigm changes the way people look at the disabled and demonstrates very effectively that individuals with disabilities can participate in physical activity, as well as the social and economic segments of the community. The ITF's Wheelchair Tennis Development Officer, Mark Bullock, has noted that these efforts are changing the lives of local disabled individuals - many of whom have had very little left to live for.
Wheelchair tennis improves the quality of life of these men, women and children through an increase in confidence and freedom. The sport provides respect for the disabled and integration back into their community.
Ellen de Lange, ITF Wheelchair Tennis Manager, has stated that "A lot of disabled people have no hope any more. For many of them the first priority is to survive. But wheelchair tennis gives them pleasure and boosts their self-esteem. It gives them the confidence to be more independent and the result is that they are more positive about life."
In my mind, one of the most phenomenal aspects of this program is that some players from Silver Fund countries are eligible for wild card slots for the Paralympics. The ITF provides financial assistance to provide players international tournament experience, training and travel funds to the Paralympics. Bolivia, in particular, is eager to develop players for the 2008 Paralympics.
There are many ways to contribute to the Silver Fund. In addition to monetary donations, wheelchairs and tires, tennis clothing and equipment (racquets, balls, bags, strings) are needed on an ongoing basis. While sporting good companies like Wilson, foundations and industry associations like the US Racquet Stringer's Association support the Silver Fund, many of these
clothing and equipment donations come from individuals like you and me.
The program also needs the assistance of wheelchair tennis coaches. Coaches spend 6-8 weeks in the selected countries to assist in the establishment of the wheelchair tennis program. (Associated travel accommodation and meal costs are supported in addition to a coaching fee.)
If you would like to see wheelchair tennis in action, in the United States you can locate
a tournament through the "TennisLink Tournament" section
site of the USTA website and under "Division" place "Wheelchair" from the pull down menu.
I'm always amazed when I watch wheelchair tennis. I continually shake my head and say "How do they do that?" It's like an extreme sport. No brakes on the wheelchairs and definitely, no 2-handed strokes. The racquet stays in their hand as they push the chair - there wouldn't be enough time to put the racquet in your lap and then pick it up again to make the shot. Some of the grips and techniques are most certainly unique. And at the elite level, forget the second bounce. Most players are hitting back on the first bounce.
The ITF's Silver Fund welcomes your ideas and suggestions. For more information you can contact Ms. Nancy Faas (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Until Next Month ... Jani