Wheelchair Revolution

by: Andrew Friedman | November 25, 2014

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After becoming paralyzed in a skiing accident, Brad Parks (left) discovered wheelchair tennis. He and Jeff Minnebraker (right) were two of the sport's pioneers, teaching it to players and establishing rules and regulations. (Photo courtesy of Brad Parks)

Created at a California rehab center, wheelchair tennis had simple beginnings. Nearly 40 years later, it is a professional sport starring world-class athletes playing tournaments around the globe.

In 1976, freestyle skier Brad Parks suffered an accident in competition that left him paralyzed from the waist down. Like many who endure disabling injuries, he played wheelchair basketball as part of his rehab. Then one day, he tried hitting some tennis balls with his father.

From that casual rally, a revolution grew. Today, wheelchair tennis is a global sport that the International Tennis Federation (ITF) estimates is played in 80 to 100 countries. It’s also the rare Paralympic sport in which top players can make a living. The ITF’s UNIQLO Wheelchair Tennis Tour features more than 160 tournaments across 40 countries, including a competition at all four Grand Slams. Top wheelchair tennis players spend roughly half the year globetrotting, and the rest training several hours a day, five or six days a week, just like their able-bodied counterparts.

It is a far cry from the sport’s humble origins, almost 40 years ago, in Southern California. Parks’ speculative interest took a fateful turn when he returned to the Rancho Los Amigos rehabilitation center in Downey, CA, for a reevaluation one month after his discharge. Since his initial stay at Los Amigos, a new recreational therapist, Jeff Minnebraker had taken over. Minnebraker, a paraplegic who had been injured in an automobile accident, had custom-designed his own lightweight, maneuverable wheelchair and had started playing wheelchair tennis himself, incorporating it into life at Los Amigos.

In the annals of wheelchair sport, that chance encounter was the equivalent of John Lennon meeting Paul McCartney or Steve Jobs hooking up with Steve Wozniak—creating an alchemy that changed things forever. 

Minnebraker could not be reached for this story, but in the 1976 short film that profiles him, Get It Together, he describes his goal with his customized chair: “I just streamlined it as much as possible and looked at it as more of a sports car that would perform, something that would really function well. I wanted my chair to be something that would turn very, very quick.”

In the opening moments of the film, Minnebraker is seen wheeling and spinning in his chair, at speeds that were unprecedented at the time. Another innovation he made was eliminating push handles from his wheelchair. “They weren’t needed,” Minnebraker says in the film. “Everybody is inbred in society so that wherever you go people want to push you, and I don’t like that. I’m striving to be independent.” 

Minnebraker and Parks became friends, and Parks would often visit Minnebraker in his Woodland Hills home. One day, he tried Minnebraker’s customized chair, and Minnebraker sat in his. “His chair didn’t have much of a back, and no armrests. When you saw Jeff in the chair, you only saw Jeff, with wheels,” says Parks. “I looked at him in my chair with the high back and I said ‘God you look so disabled. That must be how I look.’”

“I asked him if he’d make me a chair,” says Parks.

“No,” said Minnebraker. “But I’ll teach you to make your own.” Parks learned and eventually the two men, along with a few other wheelchair tennis players, went into business manufacturing the chairs under the brand name Quadra.

Brad Parks (above, right) and Randy Snow (above, left) were the driving forces behind the sport and winners on the court as well. They won the first-ever wheelchair tennis men's doubles gold medal at the 1992 Paralympic Games (below).

In the ensuing years, Parks and other wheelchair tennis players, such as John Chambers, began organizing tournaments. In an age that predated the Internet and social media, not to mention fax machines, promoting the tournaments to a limited competitor base wasn’t easy. “We did the flier thing,” says Chambers, who became a leading figure in adaptive sports in Las Vegas. “We got the word out through the eight or nine community centers in Los Angeles.” As people began to hear about it, more and more players began showing up from farther and farther away. 

In 1980, Parks, who had taken on a leadership role in the expansion of the sport (Minnebraker became less involved as the years ticked by), forged the National Foundation of Wheelchair Tennis along with fellow competitors David Kiley, David Saltz and Jim Worth. A year later, the Wheelchair Tennis Players Association was created.

The sport’s elders universally describe Parks as the man with the plan, the visionary who used his business savvy and organizational prowess to spread wheelchair tennis across the United States and overseas, by organizing tournaments and clinics, and by roping in all-important sponsors.

If Minnebraker was wheelchair tennis’ engineer and early architect, and Parks its ambassador and rainmaker, then fellow player Randy Snow was its recruiter-in-chief. “Randy could go out and mingle, and he attracted people like the Pied Piper,” says Kiley. Snow, a Texan who became disabled in a farming accident, had an indefatigable drive and infectious personality. Parks would deliver people to clinics and Snow would rope them in and inspire them. Snow went on to become a world No. 1 wheelchair player and won 10 US Open singles titles between 1981 and 1993. He died of a heart attack at age 50 in 2009 while in El Salvador to conduct a tennis clinic. In 2012, he became the second wheelchair tennis player, after Parks, to be inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame.

During these formative years, the fundamentals of the sport were established. First, there were the rules, which are the same as for able-bodied tennis, with one change: Two bounces instead of one. The other adjustments are linguistic (“wheel fault” instead of “foot fault”) and organizational (in the quad division, men and women can compete against each other in singles).

Those are relatively minor adjustments, but how the game is played is another story: Many of the fundamentals are not just different from able-bodied tennis, they are opposite. Where periodic stopping, such as the requisite split step that precedes a volley, is an essential part of an able-bodied player’s rhythm, the notion of stopping is anathema to a wheelchair player. In wheelchair tennis, one must stay in constant motion because getting to a ball from a still-start is exceedingly difficult. As a result, players will wheel to the doubles alley then, to borrow a sailing term, come about and return to the “hub,” or point of recovery relative to the position of the opponent and the ball.

The other unusual sight is that players often turn their back to the net, their opponent and the ball. A player who has come to the net will not roll backwards to chase down a lob but rather he or she will come about and roll toward the baseline, stealing an over-the-shoulder glance at the opponent, then try to be in position by the time the ball comes back their way.

Accordingly, “mobility” is one of the things wheelchair players endeavor hardest to develop and most admire, or fear, in each other. “You need to start thinking with your hands and that’s hard,” says Jason Harnett, a USTA national coach who works with top players such as Nick Taylor and David Wagner. 

(Photos courtesy of Brad Parks)

One pioneer feels that the development of wheelchair tennis was a distinctly U.S. phenomenon: “When I arrived in the U.S. in 1981, the first thing that really impressed me was so many people smiled to me and gave me a thumbs-up just seeing me pushing along on the sidewalk,” says Jean-Pierre Limborg, a Frenchman who came to California after hearing about the Quadra chair, and ended up sticking around for four months and playing six wheelchair tennis tournaments. “In France, you get out of the hospital with a list of what you cannot do; you generated pity,” Limborg says. “But in the U.S., you were more like a hero; the definition of the hero in American culture is the one who by accident or destiny gets knocked down, and gets up again.”

Before Limborg, widely regarded as the first international wheelchair tennis player, returned to France, Parks gave him a mission. “Come back next year with other players,” says Parks. “He came back with five or six players, one of whom became the No. 1 player in the world at a later date, and one became the second president of our international federation. That’s how it grew.” 

But Limborg did even more than that. He was determined to expand wheelchair tennis in his home nation. But it wasn’t easy. Like many early wheelchair players, Limborg encountered resistance at local clubs, where the directors were fearful of the damage the wheels might have done to the court, a problem that persists to this day, even though the wheels, like non-marking shoes, pose no such threat.

Limborg prevailed, breaking in between 15 to 20 players over the next year. According to Limborg, a watershed moment was when French tennis star Yannick Noah participated in a wheelchair tennis exhibition in 1982, drawing, by Limborg’s recollection, 3,000 people to watch the future Roland Garros champ hit with the wheelchair players. The impact was far reaching. After Chantal Vandierendonck, a promising junior player from the Netherlands, was paralyzed in a car accident, her uncle, who had seen a television piece on the exhibition, mentioned it to his niece. She visited Limborg in Paris, then returned home and took up the sport. Vandierendonck went on to become a five-time Paralympic gold medalist and was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in July. 

According to the ITF, by 1985, more than 1,500 wheelchair tennis players were participating in 40 sanctioned events in the U.S. alone; quad and women’s divisions were expanding; and that same year, the World Team Cup, an international competition, was created, the Japan Open debuted, and the European Wheelchair Tennis Federation (EWTF) was formed. In 1990, the Lipton tournament (now the Miami Open) in Key Biscayne, FL, became the first mainstream tournament to host a wheelchair competition. 

About the same time, wheelchair tennis moved under the auspices of the ITF. In February 1991, Ellen de Lange, a wheelchair tennis player then ranked No. 2 in the world, was appointed general manager of wheelchair tennis for the ITF. 

“The fact that the ITF has become responsible for wheelchair tennis has had a huge impact on the international growth of the game,” says de Lange, who today serves as wheelchair officer. “Through the ITF contacts, such as member nations, sponsors, Grand Slams, we have been able to open doors which might have otherwise still been closed.”

Jean-Pierre Limborg was the first international participant at wheelchair tennis' US Open. He helped expand the sport beyond the U.S., establishing the game in his native France and throughout Europe. (Photo courtesy of Jean-Pierre Limborg)

Even as the sport brings its professional players more and more fame and, if not fortune, at least income, there are those who have never heard of it. The ITF Wheelchair Tennis Development Fund makes its mission to spread wheelchair tennis around the globe with a focus on developing countries. Just how big a challenge that is varies from place to place. In some, says Mark Bullock, general manager of wheelchair tennis for the ITF, before he and his colleagues can get to the tennis, they have to break down barriers that surround the disabled. 

“In many developing countries, people with disability are the poorest of the poor, often rejected by their families,” says Bullock. By way of example, he points out that, in Haiti, the word for “disabled” (cocobai), means “worthless.” Step one in many new countries is to change attitudes toward disability.

Bullock often tells the story of a mission he made to Nigeria, where he was told about a young woman whom the community thought might be interested in wheelchair tennis. When Bullock met her, he discovered that she had never left her residential street. She accepted an invitation to attend a clinic, showing up in a brand new, shiny silver medical wheelchair, gifted to her by a charity organization three years prior, but which she had never found reason to use. Bullock reports that the young woman has taken up the sport. “She’s not a ranked player,” he says, “but she is playing on a regular basis. There are lots of stories like that.”

Dan James, national manager of wheelchair tennis for the USTA, who works closely with Bullock, has participated in many similar trips, finding them to be “phenomenal life experiences,” he says. “They really put into perspective that sport can be much more than playing games.” 

Bullock and James both say that at the recreational and professional levels, the more you watch, “the more the chair disappears.” It’s a sentiment shared by many in the sport. Like eyes adjusting to the dark, with time comes clarity and comfort.

Bullock envisions a world in which more and more people play wheelchair tennis at whatever level they choose, and where it’s normal to see wheelchair players at a club, right alongside the able-bodied. “Even in a country like the U.K., where awareness is high, we still get questions like ‘Will they damage the courts?’ We are striving for a climate of ‘Come on down and play.’ We’re still way off that.”

At the professional level, things are better than ever for wheelchair tennis. The sport is part of the Paralympic Games, earning it crucial television coverage that brings increased awareness. There are more and more junior competitions. National federations and associations around the world offer training and support to aspirants. Following a long and productive sponsorship arrangement with NEC, the wheelchair tour is currently sponsored by UNIQLO. More and more spectators flock to matches at the Grand Slams and other tournaments. Players make more and more prize money and there’s an increased promise of celebrity; Japan’s Shingo Kunieda, the current wheelchair men’s No. 1, is followed around the world by print and television journalists, and receives a hero’s welcome back home.

Says de Lange, who “only had a desk and a telephone” when she started as director in 1991, “Sometimes I was close to the last item of my list of things to do, not knowing what to do after I finished that list, but it never came to that stage. Today, we have not enough staff to do all what we would like to do, and that is exciting.

“The biggest change is that the sport has become so much more professional,” says de Lange. “In the early days, very few coaches were aware of wheelchair tennis, there were a handful of tournaments, no (international) sponsors and there was no prize money. Today, we have professional players in the sport and many countries and the Grand Slams have all embraced wheelchair tennis. We have also been very fortunate with loyal sponsors such as NEC, BNP Paribas, the Cruyff Foundation and more recently UNIQLO. I have still many dreams and enough challenges, but we have come a very long way.”

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