Blind Ambition

by: Thomas Lin | December 10, 2014

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Blind athletes learn to play tennis with some modifications, such as a smaller court with raised lines, a lower net 
and foam tennis balls containing bearings that make noise. (Thomas Lin)

Tata, tata, tata. The sound advances like a baby’s rattle bouncing across a darkened room. My grip on the junior racquet tightens. I swipe where I think the moving target will be. It’s more of a scoop than an orthodox forehand, long on hand and wrist, short on footwork or shoulder rotation, with no backswing to speak of. Smack! Tata, Tatatatata. I stand there, blindfolded and smiling, proud to have sent a ball careening somewhere, anywhere.

“Let’s try that again,” I say. But this time I ask that the toss not go perfectly into the expected path of my stroke. I want to see if I can track and hit a foam ball stuffed with jangly ball bearings using only my ears to pinpoint its location. Tata, tata. I take two hesitant steps to the right. Tata, scoop! Whoosh. Where is the ball? I try again. Again, air. It is my first lesson in blind tennis.

My lesson occurred back in 2012 and my instructor was Sejal Vallabh of the volunteer organization Tennis Serves, which she founded to pair sighted high school tennis players with visually impaired students at such places as Lighthouse International in New York City, Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, MA, and the California School for the Blind in Fremont, CA. My experience was not unusual for a blind tennis beginner, she says—many of her students often feel frustrated at first. But once they start making contact with the ball, says Vallabh, they “gain the confidence to be able to do it again. That’s when it becomes really exciting.”

One of the athletes at Perkins was Dan Guilbeault, an affable teenager who had gradually lost almost all his sight after being treated for a brain tumor when he was 3.

“I can only see your shadow,” he says. “And that’s only faint.” He played multiple sports growing up, but as his vision dimmed, “I never thought I would be able to play tennis,” he says.

When he heard that tennis classes would be offered at Perkins, Guilbeault seized the opportunity. “It actually became very easy for me,” he says. “I kind of wish they had this for public school kids who are blind all across the country.” Unlike traditional adaptive sports for the blind like goalball or “contact” wrestling, he adds, “Everybody knows the game of tennis.”

But, as everybody also knows, tennis requires visual acuity and hand-eye coordination to swat a small yellow ball with pace and precision. Your coach commands you ad nauseam to “keep your eye on the ball.” You say “good eyes” to your doubles partner when he or she lets the ball sail long. At the highest levels of the game, players make split-second decisions based on the direction of the ball, the amount and angle of its spin, the positioning of the net and lines in relation to the ball, and in the periphery, whether the opponent is favoring one side.

So, how is blind tennis possible? Scientists have found that the visual cortex—the part of the brain that processes what your eyes see—can also process auditory and tactile information. Blind people can also have visual perception, says Dr. Robert Gotlin, director of orthopedic and sports rehabilitation at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City. “They can perceive objects in space using other senses.”

The sport is also modified. In addition to using a sound-adapted foam ball (for safety and lower bounces), it has a smaller court with raised lines, a lower net and shorter racquets, and players are allowed up to three bounces, depending on the severity of the visual impairment.

The sport’s origins date back to 1984, when a blind Japanese teenager named Miyoshi Takei designed the first sound-adapted tennis ball. By 1990, Takei had organized the first national tournament in Japan. Watching Takei’s long rallies on YouTube, in which his flat groundstrokes sometimes paint the lines and his deep, exquisite lobs hang in the air as he resets on defense, is a transcendent experience. He was the Roger Federer of blind tennis, winning 16 of the first 21 national championships in Japan. Tragically, in 2011 he died in a train accident at the age of 42.

Takei’s “dream was to spread blind tennis all over the world,” says Ayako Matsui, a special education teacher in Japan who has been promoting the sport since she befriended Takei and his wife, Etsuko, in 2006. “He wanted to make society better, with able-bodied and disabled playing tennis together and understanding each other,” Matsui says.

Vallabh learned some blind tennis drills from Matsui during a 2010 summer internship with the volunteer service organization HandsOn Tokyo. After returning to the Boston area, Vallabh decided to introduce the sport at nearby Perkins. “My parents have spent lots of money on my classes, clinics and lessons since I was 6 or 7,” she says. “I wanted to find a way to give back to tennis.”

While national competitions are held in Japan and the United Kingdom, and the sport is played in Korea, China, Singapore, Philippines, Australia, Spain, Italy, Canada, South Africa, the Bahamas and Argentina, it is still an obscure, grassroots phenomenon in the United States. There is no national governing body, no official recognition as an adaptive sport for the visually impaired, and no tournaments. When Vallabh started attending Yale last fall, the after-school tennis programs she had sown went fallow without her leadership and network of volunteer tennis instructors.

“Nothing’s organized. It’s in its infancy stage,” says Cindy Benzon, a USTA tennis service representative based in Houston who became the adaptive coordinator for Texas about five years ago. “We’re really good at introducing, but following through and building programs is the hard part. . . .They have a lot of blind sports in the U.S., but blind tennis is not one of them.”

Eduardo Raffetto, director of the Argentina Tennis Program for the Visually Impaired, has 9-year-old Felipe Angiono feel the bounderies of the tennis court on a clipboard as he takes his first tennis class in Buenos Aires. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

Decades ago, a wheelchair-bound tennis coach took Benzon, who played college tennis for Southern Methodist University in Dallas, under his wing. Now she’s “playing it forward” by helping to teach blind tennis. At first, she said, she tried balls of different sizes and colors to make them more visible to players with partial vision. Then one day, while surfing the Internet, she discovered the sound-adapted balls and other modifications developed in Japan. “Tennis is now one of the most adaptable sports. Why not let the blind try and play?”

In February, Maria Dolores Fernandez of Looks of Hope, a Mexico-based foundation that also teaches blind tennis to a handful of children in Texas, invited representatives from 12 countries, including Benzon and Matsui, to the Rio Grande Valley for the world’s first Blind Tennis Congress. Delegates tried to map a way forward for the sport, says Claudia Sedas, a translator for the foundation. “We need to reach first local tournaments, organize state tournaments and then national tournaments.”

And, Benzon says, in order to achieve the ultimate goal of getting blind tennis into the Paralympic Games, “everybody has to play with the same size court, same ball, same scoring format.” So far, as a result of the congress, eight countries have agreed to try out the newly minted International Blind Tennis Association rules.

By all accounts, blind tennis is a challenging sport to teach, learn and organize, but Vallabh, Sedas, Benzon and Matsui all say it’s worth the effort. Vallabh is now talking about starting a blind tennis class at her college campus. “The year off made me realize this is something I want to continue doing,” she says. “There’s still a need for it.”

Learning tennis helps visually impaired children with their self-esteem, says Sedas. “They start applying this confidence in their regular education in school.” 

“We can make it happen,” Benzon says. “We just have to have people who can teach it and let people know that it’s available.”

I remember the feeling of helplessness when I couldn’t move and hit the ball, and also the exhilaration of making contact. As Guilbeault assured me, I just need more practice. At first, “sometimes children cry, but it is a good experience for them,” says Matsui. “I love their smiles when they can finally hit a ball and it flies over the net.”

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