Since its beginnings in 1976, wheelchair tennis has grown from an exhibition event to an officially-recognized Paralympic sport.
But a player doesn’t need the skill level of a Paralympian to enjoy the sport. It’s for anyone who can’t play able-bodied tennis.
And what makes it even better is that wheelchair tennis can be played on any regular tennis court, with no modification to racquets and balls. The only rule difference is that the wheelchair player gets two bounces of the ball before it has to be hit, instead of one.
The Sports Association of Gaylord Hospital, Wallingford, Conn., a DS/USA chapter, encourages beginners to try the sport at an annual clinic held every Spring.
“The great thing about tennis is that all levels of skill can play,” said Todd Munn, CTRS, Sports Association director.
“Learning how to play tennis is the same for everyone no matter their ability,” said Paul Brower, a USTA professional who has been teaching tennis for 20 years and also is the coach for the Connecticut Hornets, the Sports Association’s competitive team. “You learn the proper way to hold the racquet and learn the basic strokes. Most beginners are up and going in a few weeks.”
“As long as they can move their chair and arms, they can play tennis. We even have quads that play,” Brower said.
Although quadriplegics don’t always have the arm strength, they can still play by using athletic tape, or a gripping device to secure the racquet in their hand and forearm.
Chair users need to learn to grip the racquet differently than able-bodied players because they need to hold the racquet and push the chair at the same time. Many beginners want to keep the racquet in their lap while they push, but that results in not being ready to return the ball from the opponent.
“A player has to learn how to push the chair with the heel of the hand and the inside of the racquet grip, so the racquet is up and ready,” said Karen Smith, team captain of the Connecticut Hornets.
The racquet is held in the dominant hand with four fingers, leaving the thumb free. This leaves the pad of the hand free, giving the player a contact point with the wheel or push rim. But the free hand does the majority of the work on the court, because it is pushing and turning the chair constantly to get into the best position to return the ball.
The strategy for returning serves varies slightly from able-bodied players as chair users typically don’t play the net. “It’s easy to lob over someone’s head, so many wheelchair players stay further behind the base line for more slice and more drop shots, much like able-bodied team players do,” Brower said.
Moving around the court involves three basic stages – react, negotiate and recover with a point in the court called “the-hub” key to mastering the game. The hub is typically five feet behind the base line and is the point the player uses to react and recover after each stroke.
“For wheelchair users, that’s the effective way to play, behind the base line, because then you can come in for shots or go wide for a second bounce,” said Smith. “If you stay at the net, you won’t be able to return long shots.”
Smith said wheelchair users new to the game need to understand the importance of the hub and how to move into and out of it.
“As a player, after coming in for the shot, you then recover quickly and get back to the hub,” she said. “You are always going back and forth. It’s all about quick movement.”
Players start out at the hub and react and move toward the ball. The player negotiates the stroke (hits the ball), and then recovers toward the hub by turning his chair toward the middle of the court at an angle to provide a clear view of the opponent. Just before the opponent is about to hit the ball, the player turns into the court, ready to react to the next ball.
“As wheelchair users we have poor lateral motions,” Smith said. “As tennis players, we have to be in constant motion. I like to say we are like a shark in water. A shark has to keep moving or it will die. In wheelchair tennis, players have to keep moving or they won’t be able to get to the ball.”
Chair users know that the head is always the first part of the body to move in the direction they want their chair to move.
“The most important part is to turn with your head, because your body follows. Learn to push with the heel of your hand so the racquet is up and ready. Retreat back at an angle so you can watch your opponent over your shoulder,” she advised. “Always remember to get a quick start, stay in constant motion, and lead with the head.”
When learning the basics of tennis, an everyday wheelchair can suffice, but as players become serious about the sport, most opt to invest in a wheelchair made for court sports.
A sports chair provides a player more agility, faster response and turning quickness.
“The difference between a sports chair and a standard chair is it’s very lightweight. With no armrests, no brakes, no push handles, essentially nothing to get in the way of the swing,” said Munn.
“Sports chairs typically have only one front caster, similar to a roller blade,” he said. “There is also an anti-tip wheel in the rear that is sometimes used to help power a serve. Some newer models now have two front casters and/or anti-tippers. The large wheels of the chair are cambered to allow a quicker turning radius.
“But a beginner doesn’t need a sports chair right away. It’s a big investment. Usually the wheelchair athlete will play for one to two years before they make the purchase. They get more involved, depending on their commitment level and have learned what specifics they want on their own sports chair,” said Munn.
Munn added that amputees can also play wheelchair tennis, as long as it is in the chair.
“We don’t require anyone be in a chair for all activities,” Munn said. “Sometimes an amputee is ambulatory but will use the chair for play. The only requirement to be a wheelchair player is that you cannot play able-bodied tennis.”
Karen Smith of East Haven, Conn., played tennis only occasionally as an able-bodied person. But her interest in the sport peaked after she found herself relying on a wheelchair as her Multiple Sclerosis progressed. She now has been playing serious wheelchair tennis for more than 10 years, and is the team captain for the Connecticut Hornets, sponsored by the Sports Association, Gaylord Hospital, Wallingford, Conn.
“Playing tennis, or any adaptive sport, gets you back to where you were before you became disabled,” she said. “One of the great things about tennis is you can play with your able-bodied friends. The only rule difference is the wheelchair player gets two bounces of the ball, compared to the able-bodied one.”
“Wheelchair tennis is an activity you can do with anyone,” said Pamela Lehnert, CTRS, executive director of Baltimore Adapted Recreation and Sports (BARS), a DS/USA chapter.
“It’s not possible to play wheelchair basketball or baseball with the able-bodied, because the able-bodied person may get injured by the chair,” she said. “But tennis lets the able-bodied and wheelchair players compete against each other or even be teammates in mixed doubles.”
Tennis offers many benefits to participants. Besides the social aspect of being able to play the same game with able-bodied friends or family, tennis stimulates tactical thinking, builds confidence, improves hand-eye coordination, provides aerobic activity, and is just plain fun.
Ability level rankings per USTA
There are several divisions that identify the levels of play:
- Open: Player has had intensive training for tournament competition at the national and international levels. Excellent chair mobility.
- A: Player has good shot anticipation and has developed power and/or consistency as a major weapon. Can vary strategies and styles of play in a competitive situation. Hits dependable shots in a stress situation. Solid chair mobility.
- B: Player has begun to master the use of power and spins; is beginning to handle play and vary game plan according to opponents. Good chair mobility.
- C: Player has achieved improved stroke dependability with directional control on moderate shots, but lacks depth and variety. Learning consistent chair mobility.
- D: Player is learning to judge where the ball is going although court coverage is weak. Player can sustain a short rally of slow pace with players of the same ability. Slow, inconsistent chair mobility.