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Wheelchair Tennis - Coaches, Get Involved!
by Dan James, US World Team Cup and Paralympic Coach

Tennis is a difficult game as so many of us know, but imagine having to push a wheelchair while holding a racquet and still hit the ball. It is at times overwhelming to imagine how people can do this, but they do. They have been doing it since 1976 when Brad Parks of California invented the game. He wanted to have a game that he could play with his able-bodied friends. By giving himself two bounces (the only rule difference from the able-bodied game) he found he was able to play competitively with them. Today the two bounce rule is the only basic difference in the rules for the wheelchair player.

Wheelchair tennis started in California, but it quickly grew and by 1980 the National Foundation of Wheelchair Tennis was formed to govern the sport and its brand new tournament circuit. In the first year only ten tournaments were played, but it was the beginning of a wheelchair tennis avalanche. Players across the country were beginning to play and tournaments were being held outside of California. The number of players and abilities grew to the point where divisions were needed.

Unlike other wheelchair sports, the athletes were not categorized by their disability, but by their level of skill. There are four main divisions: Open (professional players), A, B, and C. By dividing into divisions, they were able to keep each player at a competitive level maintaining interest in tournament play. Later a new division was added called the quadriplegic division. A "quad" is disabled in at least three extremities, usually neck injuries. They often don't have the strength to hold the racquet in their hand so they must use athletic tape, or a gripping device to secure the racquet in their hand.

The boom was not limited to the United States; internationally the game took off as well. In 1985 The World Team Cup (wheelchair's version of the Davis Cup) was initiated. Twenty-two nations competed and the US was victorious. Today there are over forty nations competing, including international qualifying rounds due to growth in countries with teams. The 1999 World Team Cup was played at Flushing Meadows, the site of the US Open; the 2000 World Team Cup was held in Paris, France; and the 2001 World Team Cup was held in Sion, Switzerland. The 2002 competition will be held in Croatia.

The growth of the game has lured some of the biggest tennis governing bodies to get involved. The USTA has taken charge of the US tour and development of wheelchair tennis. On January 1, 1998, the International Wheelchair Tennis Federation was fully integrated into the ITF (governing body of the professional tour), making it the first disabled sport to achieve such a union on an international level.

It has been very exciting to watch the growth of the game, but we are really looking forward to more growth, better play, and growing support for wheelchair tennis. This includes growth in the number of players, sponsors, but most importantly, coaches. Presently coaching in wheelchair tennis has been limited to only a few "qualified coaches." Many of our athletes rely on coaching from volunteers who have limited or no experience teaching tennis.

COACHES, GET INVOLVED

Coaching is a profession of knowledge, teaching, and love; love for the game and people. It is also a profession in which it is essential for us to keep up to date with all of the new technology, philosophies, and training programs. Coaches continue their education to remain qualified, but also to maintain a passion for the sport without becoming complacent. Wheelchair tennis is an incredible opportunity to learn about adaptation in coaching as well as working with some of the most inspired athletes in the world.

The first ingredient to wheelchair tennis is mobility. Keep in mind that the wheelchair tennis player is pushing the chair with racquet in hand. This is their only source of mobility, so preparation occurs later, grip change is more difficult, and correct address to the ball is essential. As coaches we must understand mobility before we can address stroke production. This all starts with the hub.

The hub is the most important position on the tennis court for wheelchair tennis players as it is the point of recovery for every shot. Chair mobility is the first and foremost aspect of wheelchair tennis so understanding the position of the hub is pivotal to a player's success. For many years the hub sat six to eight feet behind the baseline. Players moved laterally taking the ball on two bounces, playing a consistent game.

With today's advances in chair technology (titanium chairs can be carried without effort in one hand), player mobility has vastly improved. This has lead to the use of the chair as a power source as well as the advent of a more attacking style of play. Players are taking the ball on one bounce, more and more making contact inside the baseline as much as possible. This new tactic has changed the look of mobility. It is now essential to attack the ball at a forty-five degree angle, moving into the court and recovering back to the hub at the same angle. This allows the player to see both their opponent and the ball.

New tactics and positions in wheelchair tennis have caused a need for a moving hub. Recovery is dependent upon the shot and the position of the player. Understanding when and where to recover gives the player the freedom to play shots from any vantage point on the court without fear of being out of position.

Offensive Hub

A player who attacks the ball inside the baseline with an offensive shot and decides not to attack the net will need to recover back behind the baseline. This player must understand that they are in an offensive position and that there is no need to get deep behind the baseline. Instead, they may recover just one or two feet behind the baseline, looking for a short defensive ball from their opponent. Moving the hub close to the baseline allows them to turn their chair back into the court and attack the next shot, rather than having to continue reverse mobility and take it on two bounces. By moving the hub closer to the baseline, they do two things: eliminate their opponent's recovery time and cut off potential angles they may hit.

A player who attacks the ball inside the baseline with an offensive shot and decides to attack the net must be aware that there is a hub at the net as well. The attacking player must recognize how defensive is their opponent's position. If their opponent appears barely able to reach the ball, they will close the net tightly, moving the net hub inside the baseline. If their opponent is merely off the court, but appears able to take a full swing at the ball, they will move their net hub to the service line, ready to volley a stronger shot or retreat for a lob.

Defensive Hub

The defensive hub rests eight feet behind the baseline to the back fence where there is plenty of room to maneuver and plenty of time to react. A player will recover to this hub after they hit a weak shot or their opponent has them out of position with a strong shot. The key to recovering to the defensive hub is speed. Remember, the need to recover to the defensive hub usually means that your opponent has you in trouble and the faster you get back, the more likely you are to stay in the point. The player who is recovering to the defensive hub must be ready to strike the ball while incorporating reverse mobility. It is extremely difficult to hit a shot while your chair is facing toward the back fence; practicing this skill regularly is essential.

The defensive hub can also be a position on the court that a player chooses to be in strategically. The consistency strategy remains one of the strongest in the game. Remaining behind the baseline allows the consistency player more time to react to the ball and more time to set up their shot. It is very important that when playing this deep in the court you are not attempting to hit winners. Consistency is the only option from there.

Once you understand the mobility issues for wheelchair tennis, you can address stroke production. Most players are now moving towards a semi-western forehand grip and eastern forehand on the backhand slice. Many players are utilizing the inverted topspin backhand hit with the same grip as the forehand and contact made with the same side of the racquet face. As a rule, the same technique applies for able-bodied and disabled players, but remember that preparation is later. It usually occurs on the bounce before contact, but that depends on the speed of the ball.

Utilizing new knowledge is both fun and challenging, which makes wheelchair tennis a perfect fit for tennis coaches. Take the time to be a student first, then move towards teaching our future international athletes, USTA League players, or recreational players.

UNDERSTANDING DISABILITIES

Paralysis is a scary word for all of us, but especially those who have never been introduced to the subtleties it entails. To put it simply, paralysis is the loss of all or partial function from a certain point down. It is a coach's job to understand what point that is at and what that means in terms of coaching. (See Jani Pallis' Tennis SET article Wheelchair Tennis - Medical Conditions and Injuries.)

There are three specific areas of paralysis designation, all relating to the height of the spinal cord. The lumbar region is approximately from just below the navel to the tailbone; the thoracic region begins at the navel and extends to approximately the collarbone; and the cervical region covers the neck. (See the diagram below for injury classifications.) For example, a T 12 would be paralysis (or partial) from the bellybutton down; a T 4/5 would be paralyzed from the nipples down. The difference between the two is stomach muscles. The T 4/5 would not have the usage of them.

What does that difference mean to a coach? It means that the lower the injury the more mobility within the chair during pushing, stroke production, or reaching. The T 4/5 will actually have to strap themselves to the back of the chair to keep from falling over during quick movements. A C 4 (incomplete or partial) will have a disability in the hands as well. This may lead to a need to tape the hand to the racquet for necessary strength in stroke production.

Each individual's injury and injury level is unique. It is important that a coach establish not only the height of the injury, but also the effect. This will help determine what the player is able to do from the chair and how the two of you will have to adapt their game to that which they are physically unable to do.

CHALLENGE YOUR ATHLETES

A wheelchair athlete is simply an athlete using a chair to move. The expectations that apply to all of your players must also apply to a wheelchair tennis player. This includes length of practice, additional training, and commitment. They want to be the best athletes they possibly can be so challenge them to achieve.

FURTHER INFORMATION

This article only touches the surface of wheelchair tennis. It looks at the history, mobility, and disabilities you may have to deal with. If you wish to do further research, please go to USTA Wheelchair Tennis site, or the ITF Wheelchair Tennis site. There you will find articles and information. You can also purchase the book 102 Wheelchair Tennis Drills by Dr. Bal Moore and Randy Snow from the USTA. The UPTA and PTR each have unique training programs specifically tailored to wheelchair tennis. Look for or request a testing, demo, or seminar near you.


Dan James is the US World Team Cup and Tennis Paralymic coach as well as head professional at the Lakeshore Foundation. The Lakeshore Foundation is a nonprofit organization providing services that promote fitness, recreation, and quality of life opportunities for Alabamians with physical disabilities. Located on a 45-acre campus, it features a new fitness, recreational and education center, which provides unparalleled opportunities for persons with physical disabilities to participate in fitness, recreation and athletic endeavors.

Graphic of the spinal cord from Cislunar Aerospace, Inc. thanks to Jessica Villarreal.

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