Meet the dominating doubles force of wheelchair tennis

by: Cindy Shmerler | December 08, 2016

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Nick Taylor and David Wagner have won three Paralympic gold medals and a silver. (AP)

It’s been more than 35 years since Ronald Reagan stated, during his first inaugural address, “Those who say that we’re in a time when there are no heroes, they just don’t know where to look.” We discovered heroes in every state, starting with the determined 69-year-old who won a match at an ITF Pro Circuit event earlier this year in the Alabama town of Pelham, and culminating with the coach who has overcome multiple sclerosis to build a winning program at the University of Wyoming. Their compelling stories of courage, perseverance and achievement demonstrate that the message delivered by our 40th President rings as true today as it did then.

For years, Nick Taylor has perused images of tennis stars—guys like Andy Roddick and Pete Sampras—and tried to imitate their strokes in order to improve his own.

“I try to take different aspects and strengths from different players,” says Taylor, a 36-year-old native of Wichita, KS. “I like the way Roddick runs around his backhand to hit that big rolling forehand down the line. And Sampras’ running forehand mid-air hook shot, the way he turns sideways so perfectly just before he strikes the ball.”

Taylor, like many touring professionals, watches the greats play and then imagines himself hitting the exact same shot on Centre Court at Wimbledon or in Arthur Ashe Stadium at the U.S. Open.

“I try to mimic those shots and visualize myself doing that as an able-bodied person,” he says. “I’m always surprised when I see videos, see myself as I am and realize, ‘Hey, I don’t look like those guys.’”

Taylor has spent his life confined to a wheelchair, the result of a rare genetic disorder that has left him unable to use his legs or lift his arms above his abdomen. He has never let his life be determined by what he can’t do. And that’s where tennis comes in.

As a teenager, Taylor taped a racquet to his hand and taught himself to play by hitting against the family garage. In high school, he played on the able-bodied boys’ varsity team and, even though he was the only one who competed in a wheelchair, he beat all 10 members of the squad.

Today, Taylor plays professional quad tennis, an international division of wheelchair competition that is designed for players who have loss of function in their lower extremities and in one or both of their upper limbs.

Through the USTA, Taylor met David Wagner, a fellow quad competitor and 40-year-old California native who played No. 2 singles at Walla Walla Community College in Washington before his life changed dramatically in 1995. While at the beach, he dove for a Frisbee in shallow water, caught his foot in a wave and landed head first in the sand, breaking his neck. Wagner was paralyzed from his mid-chest down and has only 30 percent feeling in his hands. He, too, tapes a racquet to his hand in order to play, though he is able to maneuver his wheelchair on his own while Taylor competes in a sanctioned motorized chair.

Taylor was a top competitor—he had already been ranked No. 1 in quad singles and doubles—when he first saw Wagner at a tournament in Birmingham, AL, in 2001. Wagner was only in his second year of wheelchair competition, but was quickly moving up the rankings.

“I didn’t know who he was, so I figured I’d be fine,” says Taylor, chuckling at the memory. “He came right out and beat me in straight sets.”

That, both men agree, was the start of a beautiful friendship and a fruitful professional partnership. Since that day in 2001, Wagner and Taylor have played more than 75 pro matches against each other, almost all of them won by Wagner. More significant, though, is their doubles success together. Since teaming up for their first tournament—at the Florida Open in 2004—Taylor and Wagner have won three gold medals at the Paralympic Games and finished second this summer in Rio, where they lost 7-5 in the third set. They’ve also won three Australian and U.S. Open doubles titles together.

“We have a common drive to want to succeed,” says Wagner. “We really bring out the best in each other, and that togetherness helps. We’ve been through a lot of battles together, both highs and lows. I’m really in awe of what Nick has achieved.”

“We’re the two most competitive people out there,” says Taylor, who teaches sports marketing and management at Wichita State University and also serves as a volunteer assistant coach for the men’s tennis team. “We compete in everything, from QuizUp and Tiger Woods [golf games] on our iPhones to even keeping track in the middle of a match of how many aces we hit or how many returns our opponents miss.

"Competitiveness like that brings us together. Everybody loves to win, but it’s a different breed of people who absolutely hate to lose.”

Neither Taylor nor Wagner are showing any signs of slowing down or dismantling their successful partnership. They both feel that they can compete a great deal longer than able-bodied players; being in a wheelchair, their knees, hips and backs don’t take a pounding.

Both Taylor and Wagner have seen the world through wheelchair tennis, competing everywhere from Atlanta to Australia. Wagner, with his manual wheelchair, has an easier time playing on red clay, so he plays the French Open. Taylor, meanwhile, plays with assorted other partners during a swing through Korea. They both look forward to the day when Wimbledon adds a wheelchair division.

Still, their favorite event, by far, is the U.S. Open, where the fans are most supportive and where they get to chat with Roger Federer in the locker room and Venus Williams in the players’ lounge.

This past summer, Taylor was on his way to play an early-evening match in Wichita. As he steered his specially-fitted Dodge Grand Caravan—“a soccer-mom minivan,” he jokes—out of his driveway with the help of a customized joystick, he was asked if there is anything he wishes Wagner would do with him.

“I’d like to teach him to snow ski in the winter,” Taylor says. “But I go pretty fast, and he can’t quite wrap his head around that idea.”

“Is there anything you can’t do?” Taylor is asked.

“Well, I’m not very good at climbing mountains,” he says with a hearty laugh.

To the contrary, both Taylor and Wagner have scaled some pretty enormous peaks in their lives.

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