20-year-old Mackenzie Soldan is one of the rising stars in the women's Wheelchair Tennis game, entering her first Paralympics.
© Jeremiah Yolkut
By Steve Goldberg, special to USTA.com
LONDON -- When tennis takes court for the sixth time as a Paralympic medal sport, 112 players from 31 countries will vie for just 18 medals. Team USA coach Dan James hopes his squad will take two of them.
It’s a mixed lot for the Americans who are bringing youth, experience and some bona fide contenders who could help achieve that goal. While the Olympic event was held at Wimbledon, the Paralympic tournament moves to Eton Manor, whose hard courts were built specifically for this event which will run from September 1-8.
The men’s open will be the longshot here, just as it was for the Olympics. It’s an area where the Americans have a lot of experience but which has been tempered by the demands of family and responsibility. Steve Welch, 40, is the most accomplished with two silver and one bronze Paralympic medals, and is currently ranked 18th in the world, yet those medals came in Atlanta and Sydney over a decade ago. Still, James says, "I would never put anything past a guy like Steve Welch. He’s one of the most talented athletes ever to have played wheelchair tennis."
It will take a good draw and some inspired performances for Welch and his teammates to get past the logjam of potential gold medalists at the top including current no. 1, Stephane Houdet of France, four-time US Open winner Shingo Kuneida of Japan and the Dutch pair of Ronald Vink and Maikel Scheffers.
Jon Rydberg, now ranked 35th, used to be no. 11 in the world. He is a Minnesotan like James, and a multisport athlete like Welch. Both of them played basketball on scholarship in college before focusing on tennis in the Paralympics. He’s been a coaching high school girls’ tennis team but his training has been curtailed due to birth of son a year ago.
Yet, last May, he took the first set off Scheffers, who was world no. 1 at the time, in a tight three-set match at the Atlanta Open. "He has the talent to play with anyone," says James. "Nothing will surprise me with him."
Then there’s Steve Baldwin, 41, now ranked no. 55 in the world. James tells how he was top ten in the world in 2002 but decided to step away from the game for a while. He came back "two or three years ago" and James marvels on how he’s climbed his way in that short amount of time all the way to qualifying for the Paralympics. "He’s a very talented athlete, a talented player. The fact that he’s made these games is incredible."
The rankings can be misleading says James. "These guys aren’t playing the schedules that they used to play which is part of the reason that their rankings are down. But they’re also not able to train like some of these other countries are training right now. You have some of the younger group from Europe and Japan who are playing 20-25 tournaments a year."
It was school and a rigorous engineering program that distracted Noah Yablong, 24. "He was one of my top juniors," says James. "He was part of our World Team Cup team for two years and showed a lot of promise. He went to school and started focusing on his degree and is clearly a very intelligent young man. Towards the end of college, he decided to rededicate himself to tennis and got himself into the top 45 in the world." He got to no. 41 last September before falling back to no. 118 in the table.
James shoots straight when he says, "We’re probably about second tier in the men’s division. I, as a coach, am going to be relying on them to do something savvy to do something special at the games."
The youth comes from the USA women in 20-year-old Mackenzie Soldan and 22-year-old Emmy Kaiser.
James is looking towards Rio with this pair. "This is where they get their feet wet. Anything they do here is a bonus. 2016 is where they’ll be seasoned veterans and where they’ll be able to compete at that point."
There is the fact also that of the 15 medals awarded in women’s singles, only two haven’t been won by the Netherlands. Esther Vergeer has won the last three gold medals and hasn’t lost in 465 matches. They need to get experience against the Dutch. Soldan’s last singles match against "Agent Orange" came in September 2010 against current number three, Jiske Griffioen where she took two games in two sets.
Soldan, who is at the University of Alabama on a basketball scholarship, only made the team with a win over Kaiser at the Parapan American Games in Guadalajara, showing off the raw skill that makes her dangerous.
Kaiser "is one of the best ball strikers in the world," notes James. "It’s always an exciting time when she’s on the court. I think she’s still very young as a match player. It’s really about developing that ability to play matches in a smart manner and being able to finish out with wins.
"Mackenzie is just a special athlete. She’s one of our best competitors. She is at a little bit of a disadvantage in that she isn’t training (for tennis) on a regular basis but she more than makes up for that in her ability to compete and find ways to win."
So where are they right now? James believes that they can be competitive against the doubles teams from Holland but that, "they’re not able to win those matches right now. Against the next tier like Germany and Japan where we’re looking at those bronze medals, they are very competitive with them. So we’ll have some very tight matches both in singles and doubles."
But that doesn’t mean they can’t do some damage at Eton Manor. Playing without fear of losing may give the young guns the freedom to win.
So where are those medals going to come from? Look no further than where they’ve been coming from, the quad squad of David Wagner and Nick Taylor. Though they faced off for the bronze in Beijing with Wagner prevailing, they teamed up in doubles for gold and could likely do that again.
If they do, it could be more precious this time, as James says the division is "far more competitive," especially from the home team who still has two time defending gold medalist Peter Norfolk and newcomer Andrew Lapthorne. Israel’s Noam Gershony is currently number two in the world behind Wagner with the two Brits just behind.
Taylor is ranked no. 6 in the world with another American, Bryan Barten, no. 9.
James feels good about their chances, saying they will absolutely competing for podium again. "We are bringing three guys who have been in the top ten in the world in that division so it’s a pretty strong team."