40-year-old Steve Welch will represent the Team USA men in his fifth Paralympic Games.
© Jeremiah Yolkut
Paralympic newcomers Emmy Kaiser (left) and Mackenzie Soldan will try to medal for the Team USA women.
© Jeremiah Yolkut
Two-time Paralympic doubles gold medalist will try to win an elusive singles gold, in addition to partnering once again with Nick Taylor.
© Natalie Behring
By Nicholas J. Walz, USTA.com
The Olympics concluded with grand closing ceremonies just a few days ago, yet the world-class competition continues in London as nine American tennis players will vie for gold at the 2012 Paralympic Games.
Over the course of 12 days, Great Britain will be at the epicenter of the Paralympic movement, welcoming more than 4,200 athletes from over 150 different countries beginning August 29 with the opening ceremonies. The tennis events, featuring men’s, women’s and quad competition, begin on September 1 and extend through September 8.
The 2012 London Games represent a return to the origins of Paralympic sport, coming home to the country where famed German neurologist Sir Ludwig "Poppa" Guttman conceived and then executed the idea of organizing sporting events for veterans of World War II with spinal cord injuries (then known as the "Stoke Mandeville Games" in 1948 with 16 total competitors). The London homecoming decades later arrives after the Paralympics have covered the globe, traveling to Asia, Australia, North America and several other parts of Europe and showcasing athletes with disabilities competing against each other on the highest level.
112 tennis players from 30 countries will travel to Eton Manor, a newly built 10,500-seat venue built specifically for wheelchair tennis, located in London’s Olympic Park.
"One thing through the years, the reaction you’ll get from Americans is fantastic," said Stephen Welch of the men’s team, who’s first Paralympic experience took place on home soil in Atlanta in 1996. "It’s a lot more meaningful than usual because there are so many people in Atlanta, or Chicago, or New York that recognize that you’re going to play for your country – and appreciate what that means to represent the United States – as opposed to just yourself."
Tennis has been a part of the Paralympic Games since 1988 in Seoul, when it debuted as a demonstration sport. Four years later in Barcelona, Wheelchair Tennis competition – men’s and women’s singles and doubles, four events in all – became a full medal event and has been ever since. Starting in 2004 in Athens, "mixed" competition (more commonly known as "quad" competition in the United States) debuted, integrating quadriplegic players and expanding the event count to six.
"Its an important tournament that you want to do your best at," said David Wagner, who will play in his third Paralympic Games, winning gold twice in doubles and a silver (2004) and a bronze (2008) in singles. "To be a part of the very first event [in Athens], the first time quads were introduced was a great honor. The first time you know nothing of what to expect, and it didn’t dawn on me that I could be a gold medalist, or what that really meant, until after I left."
Indeed, it is one of the sacred achievements a player can capture to medal in a field filled with multi-time Paralympic and Grand Slam champions. Here’s a preview of what to expect for the men, women and quad players:
At 40 years of age, the aforementioned Welch is one of the elder statesmen of the group – joined by teammate Stephen Baldwin, 41 – and is participating in his fifth Paralympic Games, the most of any American player. Welch has competed in both singles and doubles dating back to 1996, winning four total medals: One gold (1996, doubles), two silvers (1996 & 2000, singles) and a bronze (2000, doubles).
The Southlake, Texas product and former two-time top-ranked singles player in the world confesses that training for top international competition is tougher now than ever before, but still as rewarding.
"I had a ten year hiatus from the sport," said Welch, who returned to the game after a degenerative hip injury and is currently the top-ranked American at world no. 20. "Before then, playing all my life, I always believed that coming into a match that I had a true advantage in strength. I was always physical; I cross-trained, and played Paralympic-level basketball. So, I developed my skills around that core asset.
"Coming back, you know, I was a bit heavier and not as strong – I had to become better with my tennis because the level of the game has gone up so much. The coaching has improved dramatically, there’s more money in the sport now with sponsorship and more government support to players. I had to retool my game, my strokes. Reworking my serve, too."
Welch also re-dedicated himself with a brand-new exercise regimen, based around daily swimming, to check in at a trim 162 lbs. for London. He’s also become a more cerebral player, taken to writing down his observations and strategy concerning fellow players – "my little diary," as he calls it – to try and understand the intricacies of their game.
"You can get as good as you want, but there truly is something in learning your opponent. Knowing one key thing about them, and how that relates to your playing style, often makes the difference between winning and losing."
Welch will undoubtedly have notes about Japan’s Shingo Kuneida, defending Beijing gold medalist and a 12-time Grand Slam singles winner. Other top competitiors include Robin Ammerlaan of the Netherlands, who won gold in Athens and silver in Beijing, as well as well as fellow Dutchman Maikel Scheffers, no. 3 in the world who could celebrate his 30th birthday with gold after winning the 2012 Australian Open earlier this year. France’s Stephane Houdet has never medaled in singles competition, but is currently ranked no. 1 in the world and has doubles gold in Beijing to his credit.
Rounding out the U.S. men’s roster is three-time Paralympian Jon Rydberg and two first-timers, Baldwin and 24-year-old Noah Yablong. The foursome also represented the U.S. at the 2012 World Team Cup back in May, where they finished in seventh place in World Group I competition.
Focus will be steadfast upon three-time defending gold medalist Esther Vergeer, as the 31-year-old Dutch champion has dominated the Wheelchair Tennis world and has made national headlines with a nine-year, 457 match winning streak in singles competition. Still more, Vergeer has strongly hinted that these London Games could be her last competition as a professional, leading to much intrigue as to where the women’s division goes next.
The Netherlands has produced a plethora of brilliant female players in addition to Vergeer, from veterans Sharon Walraven and Jiske Griffioen to Paralympics newcomers Aniek Van Koot and Marjolein Buis. The Dutch have accounted for every gold and silver singles medals since 1992, as well as each gold in doubles – odds are they will see plenty of the medal stand in 2012.
However, the U.S. will enter two young, motivated players into the women’s events in 22-year-old Emmy Kaiser and 20-year-old Mackenzie Soldan, the latter of whom made a trip to the 2011 Parapan American Games in Guadalajara, Mexico last November a truly memorable one, sweeping gold in both singles and doubles with Kaiser.
"It all fell into place," said Soldan of her ParaPanAm experience. "I was extremely happy, and actually I didn’t realize that it would provide me a direct entry into the Paralympics."
Soldan said the experience was a true check of her mental toughness.
"One of the keys, and its something I’ve struggled with in the past, is not getting down when my shots aren’t where I need them be," said Soldan. "Its all about being competitive, and sometimes being so competitive makes you forget that a missed opportunity represents just one point., and a new one is about to begin. That’s what I found that I could do in that tournament."
Kaiser and Soldan, the defending ParaPanAm champions, have often played doubles together since their teenage years in the Juniors division, having been part of multiple World Team Cup squads and most recently on the women’s team at the WTC in Seoul in May. If the U.S. women are to medal in doubles for the first time since Atlanta in 1996, a lot will ride on their chemistry.
"We’ve known each other for eight years – the friendship helps out on the court, for sure," said Soldan. "She keeps it loose, and can make a joke about a bad shot and pick you up. It can be an advantage, for sure."
Soldan also has a rich background in Wheelchair Basketball, a part of the 2011 Team USA 25-and-Under gold medal squad and the 2011 Collegiate National Wheelchair Basketball championship team at the University of Alabama.
"Sports have always been something I’ve wanted to do," said Soldan. "My mom reminds me often that my first words I could say as a baby was ‘ball.’ I’ve always wanted to be active, feeling that drive and spirit to be my best."
Wagner is the current no. 1 player in the world in both singles and doubles and has compiled a fantastic career resume. The one thing that missing – his focus in 2012 – is a singles gold medal.
"I’m hoping for it," said Wagner "Physically, I’m in the best shape I can possibly be so I can realize that opportunity, so I want to maintain that all the way through [to London]. It’s now time to give it everything I’ve got."
Wagner’s main foil will be Great Britain’s own Peter Norfolk, who has taken the gold in both singles draws in 2004 and 2008, ruling the brief history of the event. However, Wagner has bested Norfolk at three Grand Slam singles finals since Beijing (2010 & 2011 US Open, 2011 Australian Open), providing confidence and focus.
"Its going to be a blast having family and friends in London supporting me, as it’s a chance for them to travel and see another part of the world," said Wagner. "For me, I’m there to do my job, and my job is to go there and win two gold medals."
The Wagner/Taylor doubles combination has proved just as impressive as Norfolk in the singles and will shoot for a third gold. Taylor, currently the no. 6 quad player in the world as a single, will also be considered a candidate to medal. World no. 9 Bryan Barten rounds out the trio in his first Paralympics and doesn’t get a fraction of the publicity as Wagner and Taylor, yet is a dangerous player that is a seven-time U.S. World Team Cup member and a WTC champion, including four consecutive appearances from 2009-2012.
"He’s a hell of a player," said Wagner of Barten. "He did everything he had to do to get his ranking up where it needed to be – he qualified not by wild card but by strict direct entry, which I think is an awesome feat. Given the right circumstances, he could wreak some havoc on this draw. I hope that comes true."
USTA.com will feature exclusive daily recaps, features and daily blogging from London as we celebrate the XIV Paralympic Games and Wheelchair Tennis. Don't miss any of the action starting Sept. 1 as Team USA goes for the gold!