Blazing the Trail

by: Andrew Friedman | October 30, 2013

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Most Grand Slam tennis spectators have probably witnessed wheelchair tennis first-hand: If they haven’t actually sat down and marveled at the derring-do evinced by practitioners of the sport, they’ve certainly glimpsed a match out of the corners of their eyes. Wheelchair tennis is so well-known and taken for granted that it’s easy to forget it’s a relatively new development; the first wheelchair tennis tournaments weren’t held until 1977, and they first became a part of Grand Slam action—with events running on the same grounds and at the same time as the traditional tennis tournament—in 2002. That’s when the Australian Open became the first major to host a wheelchair competition alongside the main event.

Like most advancements, the advent of organized wheelchair tennis was largely the result of an individual with a mission and a vision. That individual was Brad Parks who, in 1976, at the age of 18, broke his spine in a freestyle-skiing competition. He took up wheelchair tennis as recreational therapy, playing with others in Laguna Beach, CA. The rest, as they say, is history.

Parks was not the first person to play wheelchair tennis—which is largely played by the same rules as traditional tennis except that players are allowed two bounces before returning the ball—but it had never caught on or been organized on a grand scale. Parks was instrumental in popularizing it, not just in the United States, but worldwide.

In 1980, he and fellow wheelchair athletes formed the National Foundation of Wheelchair Tennis, with Parks installed as executive director. That same year, he organized the first US Open National Tennis Championships in Irvine, CA, which drew 70 players. Parks went on to serve as tournament chairman for 18 years.

By 1984, the foundation was about 500 members strong, and about 2,500 people across the country were playing wheelchair tennis. In time, as the sport grew, its version of the ATP, the Wheelchair Tennis Players Association, was created to grant players a greater say in all aspects of the game. Wheelchair tennis is now widely known, with events at all four Grand Slams (the French Open was the last to begin hosting a wheelchair tennis event, in 2007), as well as other tournaments all over the world. But in the mid-1980s, when the Everett & Jennings Grand Prix circuit came to Flushing, NY, with about 50 competitors, it was enough of a novelty that it merited coverage in the New York Times. (Everett & Jennings was the top wheelchair manufacturer of the day.

In his younger days, Parks was an outstanding competitor. Not only did he put on that first US Open in Irvine; he won it. He was also, for a time, ranked No. 1 on the Everett & Jennings Grand Prix. Pairing with fellow top wheelchair athlete, the late Randy Snow, Parks won the gold medal in doubles at the 1992 Paralympic Games in Barcelona.

In the mid-to-late 1980s, the sport grew all over the world with events and networks springing up from France to Japan, and Parks himself was a part of this development as well, organizing clinics in Europe, Asia and the Pacific. The World Team Cup, which is an international, Davis Cup-style competition for wheelchair tennis professionals, was founded in 1985. Three years later, the International Tennis Federation sanctioned the sport, and the International Wheelchair Tennis Federation was founded, with Parks as president. In 1997, wheelchair tennis became a fully integrated part of the ITF.

Today, wheelchair tennis is played in more than 100 countries, with more than 157 tournaments worldwide. The NEC Wheelchair Tennis Tour, one of the few professional tours for wheelchair athletes, awards more than $1.5 million in annual prize money.

Parks was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, RI, in 2010. He was the first figure from the world of wheelchair tennis to be accorded that honor, but one suspects he will not be the last: With players like the Dutch wheelchair phenomenon Esther Vergeer, who retired this year on a 470-match winning streak, there will be more and more wheelchair triumphs to continue Parks’ legacy.

The word “hero” is defined as a person who is idealized for courage, outstanding achievements or noble qualities. To see more examples of heroism, and compelling evidence that this sport suffers no shortage of such individuals, click here.

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