John Johnston has been a unique USTA League fixture for decades, back once more at Nationals and taking on able-bodied players.
© Jen Pottheiser
By J. Fred Sidhu, special to USTA.com
SURPRISE, Ariz. – The evolution of wheelchair tennis continues.
John Johnston, a 63-year-old tennis wheelchair player, made his second career appearance in a USTA League National Championship this weekend.
The resident of Gainesville, Fla. represented the USTA Florida Section Super Senior men’s 6.0 team and helped his team advance to the semifinals at the Surprise Tennis & Racquet Complex.
Johnston, a Vietnam War veteran, began playing wheelchair tennis in the mid-1970s and went on to become a world-class wheelchair tennis player, traveling around the world and achieving a career-high singles ranking of 24 in the world.
In 1990 Johnston captured a doubles title at the Japan Open with Brad Parks, a member of the International Tennis Hall of Fame, who is considered one of the pioneers of wheelchair tennis.
Johnston became the first wheelchair player to play USTA League tennis approximately 20 years ago and played in his first USTA League National Championship at the Senior level in 2004.
"I was the very first one to play able-bodied USTA League Tennis. I started telling other guys in chairs about it, trying to get them involved," Johnston said. "There are not many of us. I would say probably 10 to 15 at most."
When Johnston plays with able-bodied players, he wants to show that he deserves to be on the same court.
He told the story of his first match against an able-bodied player years ago who said he wouldn’t hit the ball hard at him. On the first point of the match, Johnston set the tone as he slammed a shot at his opponent who had approached the net.
Johnston has seen wheelchair tennis evolve since he began playing and is impressed with the high level of the sport today.
"The Open (wheelchair) players now are playing unbelievable," Johnston said. "The level has risen immensely and the quality of play is incredible. It’s a specialized sport."
Johnston sees a bright future for wheelchair tennis. "It’s only going to get better and better. The kids are younger and stronger," he said. "They’re training for it. They’re going through the regular routines that the pros do now. They work out three times a day and do cross-training with weights. They’re top athletes."
When it comes to promoting USTA League tennis, Johnston has a message for his fellow wheelchair players – "You’ve got to get out there and play. It’s a game of a lifetime. You can play with your friends and family," he said. "I want them to take advantage of it because it’s going to help their game all over. I would hope that a lot more would do it."