It may be called the U.S. Open Wheelchair Tennis Championships, but when the tournament returns to Irvine next month, it will boast the largest field of foreign players ever. Among the countries represented in the tournament for the first time: Russia.
“The amazing thing is that a third of the players are from overseas,” said Brad Parks, president of the San Clemente-based National Foundation of Wheelchair Tennis, organizers of the tournament.
Parks attributes that partly to the reputation of the U.S. Open--"It’s considered the best tournament in the world"--but mostly to an explosion in the popularity of wheelchair tennis internationally. More than 300 players will take part in this year’s tournament, the biggest field ever.
Wheelchair tennis in Europe is now at a stage similar to that in the United States in the mid-1980s, when the sport was growing at its fastest rate. That growth can be charted through the evolution of the World Team Cup competition, from which Parks returned last week.
Held this year in Villach, Austria, the tournament hosted competitors from 23 countries, compared to 14 countries in 1992 and 11 countries in 1991.
Not bad for a sport that is widely acknowledged to have started in Southern California in the late 1970s. The first known tournament was held at Griffith Park in 1977, a year after Parks suffered a broken back in a freestyle skiing accident.
After his injury, Parks poured his energies into promoting wheelchair tennis, founding the foundation in 1980 as an umbrella organization for the sport in the United States. He gave clinics all over the country, and in 1985 gave his first clinics in Europe when the sport was just taking off there. He got the sport started in Australia and other places.
Now, foreign players are providing some of the toughest competition. In the women’s division, two Dutch women (Monique Kalkman and Chantal Vandierendonck) dominate the open division. French players, particularly Laurent Giammartini, have made strides in the men’s division.
Dan Lachman of Corona del Mar is a wheelchair tennis veteran (“I’ve been doing this for 13 years. I’m an old pro”). Currently ranked 15th internationally, he spent six weeks playing the European tournament circuit. In at least one sense, he says, the Europeans are ahead of the Americans: “There’s prize money in Europe, which I’m hoping will happen here.”
Still, Southern California remains a hotbed for wheelchair tennis. In Orange County, there is Parks--who with Randy Snow dominated the sport in the ‘80s and is still ranked fifth internationally--and Lachman. Other top local players include Jim Black of Oceanside, Michael Foulks of La Jolla and Chip Parmelly of Diamond Bar.
The general level of play is getting better, Lachman says, for a number of reasons. “People are training more and practicing more, and the exposure’s getting better, and there’s a lot more athleticism,” Lachman said. “I think more people are getting coaches and more people are getting serious.” But perhaps the biggest change has been in the equipment. When Parks started, his wheelchair weighed more than 40 pounds. Today’s wheelchairs, streamlined and made of lightweight materials, weigh in at about 16 pounds and feature cambered (slanted) wheels, allowing more speed and greater maneuverability.
The advances have not only helped the development of wheelchair tennis at the top competitive levels, but have contributed to the popularity of the sport as a recreational pursuit as well. Among wheelchair sports, tennis ranks second behind basketball in popularity, Parks said. (More than 10,000 players will compete in sanctioned wheelchair tennis tournaments in a year, according to foundation statistics.)
According to Ron Hastings, who has led a wheelchair tennis program at Saddleback College for 14 years, tennis has some advantages over basketball as a wheelchair sport.
People in wheelchairs “can get into racket sports and excel pretty well,” Hastings said. With an individual sport such as tennis, it’s easier to get a game together than with basketball. Also, in tennis, it’s easier to play against able-bodied players (the only major rule adaptation in wheelchair tennis is that two bounces are allowed).
When Parks took up tennis after his injury, “It made me feel like I could do something with my friends, other than just sit around and talk. That was important to me.”
For active people who are injured, wheelchair tennis can provide an outlet for those competitive instincts, as well as build self-confidence and provide a social forum. “Wheelchair tennis is really more than just tennis,” Parks said.
While top players compete in the open division, the U.S. Open and other tournaments provide a range of divisions for differing skill and ability levels, including a division for quadriplegic players.
The U.S. Open will be held at the Racquet Club of Irvine Oct. 8 to 17. Stephen Welch and Vandierendonck will be on hand to defend their singles titles of last year. The tournament is the final stop on the Everest & Jennings Grand Prix Circuit, which this year included 26 sectional, regional and national championship events (Everest & Jennings is a wheelchair manufacturer).
While the U.S. Open remains a focus, the National Foundation for Wheelchair Tennis is turning more attention to building the sport at the recreational level, by encouraging the development of leagues and team tennis tournaments.
“It’s still a very young sport,” Parks said, “and we feel that as an organization, we still have a ways to go.”