Park courts to Slams: the wheelchair tennis revolution

By Michael Beattie

Wheelchair tennis history will be made on the clay courts of Paris and the lawns of south-west London in June and July of 2019, when both Roland Garros and Wimbledon host quad wheelchair singles and doubles competitions for the first time.

It is a move that sees quad wheelchair tennis join the men’s and women’s wheelchair events on the schedule of all four Grand Slam tournaments – the latest significant milestone for a sport not yet 50 years old, established in the wake of a young skier’s drive to adapt to life in a chair.

Brad Parks was just 18 years old when, on 17 January 1976, he crash-landed during a freestyle skiing competition in Utah. The Californian was paralysed from the waist down and told he would never walk again. During his rehabilitation, Parks wondered if it was possible to play tennis in a wheelchair, and soon after leaving hospital, joining his parents on court, he gave it a go.

“No one thought it was possible to play in a wheelchair,” Parks said in 2016, the 40th anniversary of the birth of wheelchair tennis. “I was really fortunate in my early years to meet wheelchair athlete and recreational therapist, Jeff Minnebraker who was equally interested in playing wheelchair tennis.

“He came up with the idea of playing with two bounces and began designing lightweight sports wheelchairs out of his garage. He helped me make my first sports chair which gave me more mobility on and off the court – the rest is history.”

A year later, Parks and Minnebraker staged the first wheelchair tennis event in Los Angeles. In 1980, they established the National Foundation of Wheelchair Tennis, a 10-tournament circuit across the United States made up of around 300 players – modest by today’s standards, but a critical mass to help the sport thrive.

“It wasn’t always easy,” admits Parks, who throughout his career served as both competitor and promoter for the sport. “There were many sceptics who told me it couldn’t be done, it wasn’t feasible. But I was also so fortunate to have the assistance of many, from different areas in tennis. Tennis-wise, with regards to developing strokes and mobility, Bill Frantz and Vic Braden were most influential in my progression and tennis instruction.”

Word soon spread. In 1981, Jean-Pierre Limborg became the first non-American to compete at the NFWT’s US Open. On his return to France, he set about starting a programme to develop wheelchair tennis in Europe with his former tennis teacher Pierre Fusade, and the first wheelchair tennis club opened its doors in Paris. Within a year, Yannick Noah and Henri Leconte were helping to raise the sport’s profile in a series of ‘up-down’ exhibitions, playing alongside wheelchair tennis players. Meanwhile in Australia, Graeme Watts starts the first wheelchair tennis programme in Sydney following clinics by Parks and fellow NFWT founder Jim Worth.

With its player base expanding across Europe and Asia, the International Wheelchair Tennis Federation was formed in 1988, with the ITF playing a key planning and consultation role in the development of the governing body. At their own AGM that year, the ITF adopted the two bounce rule into the official Rules of Tennis, officially sanctioning the new sport, which made its Paralympic debut as an exhibition event in Seoul soon after.

Four years later, at the Barcelona Paralympics, wheelchair tennis was included as a medal event – with Parks and long-time rival Randy Snow winning the men’s doubles gold medal together.

“We were each other’s nemesis and never played with each other until the Paralympics in 1992,” Parks recalled. “It was truly special. Our final match was played before a capacity crowd of several thousand people, maybe the largest crowd ever to watch a wheelchair tennis match at that time. This was at the end of my career and it was exciting to be a part of the first Paralympics for wheelchair tennis.”

As wheelchair tennis grew, its relationship with the ITF became ever closer, until in 1998 the IWTF was fully integrated into the ITF, making wheelchair tennis the first disabled sport to achieve such a union at international level. Quad wheelchair rankings were officially introduced that same year, and a quad event featured at the World Team Cup for the first time. Junior events soon followed, and in 2002, the Australian Open became the first of the Grand Slams to have a Wheelchair Tennis Tour event running in tandem with its flagship event.

By 2007, all four Grand Slams had integrated competitive wheelchair tennis events – and now, in 2019, that includes the quad division. Wimbledon made their announcement in November 2018 after a successful exhibition event at that year’s Championships, with Roland Garros following suit in February 2019.

Limborg, now a member of the Higher Council of the FFT, made the announcement on behalf of Roland Garros: “We are delighted to introduce a quad wheelchair tennis event at Roland Garros from 2019 and look forward to welcoming the division’s elite players onto the clay courts alongside the competitors for the men’s and women’s divisions.”

For Parks, inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2010 for his contribution to wheelchair tennis, such status was beyond his own lofty ambitions for the sport.

“I never thought wheelchair tennis would be in the Paralympics,” he said. “I never thought wheelchair tennis would be in the Grand Slams, and I never thought wheelchair tennis would be in the International Tennis Hall of Fame. I never thought wheelchair tennis would be part of the ITF Rules of Tennis, nor run by the governing body of the sport of tennis. It’s beyond my dreams.”

This article is part of the ITF’s #MyCourt campaign, showcasing the inspirational and heart-warming stories that epitomise the role of tennis as a vehicle for positive change in the world.

We want tennis to be an inclusive, accessible and enjoyable sport for all – one in which everyone has their own stage on which to perform, a place they can say: This is #MyCourt.

Look out for more articles from the tennis family exploring tales from around the world of inspirational figures, challenges overcome, and the joy that tennis brings to our lives – and share your own experiences on FacebookTwitter and Instagram with the hashtag #MyCourt to be part of the story.